Immediate Theatre Company

Immediate Theatre’s Two Small Bodies has all the elements of a 40s detective movie: a tough cop, an alluring but slightly disreputable young woman, a possible murder. Naturally, the cop and the woman fascinate each other. But Neal Bell’s play has a sadistic, violent edge that would not have been explored in the 40s. Sex and violence might have been hinted at, but Philip Marlowe would never have forced a woman to dance for him in her underwear.

In Bell’s hands, the fascination between cop and femme fatale becomes an obsession. And in the cop’s hands, that obsession becomes a weapon to twist the woman into the object of his fantasies. It is ugly, dangerous, and utterly intriguing.

Two Small Bodies covers a police investigation of a kidnapping. But it is really about the emotionally brutal and sexually charged encounter between Eileen Maloney (Elizabeth Hanley), the strip-joint hostess who is the mother of the kidnapped children, and Lieutenant Brann (Paul Raci), the hard-boiled case investigator who becomes obsessed by her.

Though the piece is rooted in film noir, it is reminiscent of Harold Pinter in its economy of speech and movement. And while the structure is highly cinematic, the play has a starkness of plot and a harshness of character and action that those old movies only hint at.

Neither character minces any words. At the beginning of the investigation, when Eileen questions Brann’s constant intimations that the children are dead, he snarls, “You want false hope, go to church.” Eileen’s retorts are equally laconic and grim. When Brann sneers at her knowledge of death and asks whether she’s been dead, she replies, “Once or twice. You bounce back.”

Brann and Eileen dance around each other in ever-tightening circles, disgusted by yet drawn to each other. Brann’s questioning becomes more and more violent and crude, and the more Eileen seems to him the prime suspect in the kidnapping, the deeper his obsession becomes. Eileen in turn retreats so far into the fantasies she weaves for Brann that she herself can barely differentiate between fantasy and reality.

Director Jeff Ginsberg’s picture of obsession is gruesome and yet strangely beautiful. In his precise, calculated staging, every movement and gesture is filled with meaning. Yet this starkness is what keeps the production from exploding with the play’s full power. By stripping the characters down, revealing the naked dynamics of the situation, Ginsberg makes Brann and Eileen lose some of their humanity. And without this humanity, the horror of their attraction to each other is weakened. The script clearly indicates that these are two tortured souls: Brann is an honest cop, confounded by an obsession he can’t control. Eileen is a woman pushed to the edge of her fantasies by the self-doubt that her tormentor forces her to discover. But under Ginsberg’s direction, the characters are too hard-edged for us to feel much sympathy for them. Still, the ruthless interaction we do see is powerful.

Raci and Hanley do remarkable work as Brann and Eileen. Raci is a cop who’s seen too much of the seamy side to be a nice guy. Tough and brutal, Raci remains intriguing even at Brann’s ugliest. Hanley’s Eileen is just as tough, but she never stoops to the stereotype of a brash demimondaine. Hanley gives us a woman who has become very adept at hiding her emotions, and her performance is at its most powerful in the rare moments when Eileen shows the cracks in that rigid exterior–as when, alone in her apartment, she breaks down in soundless sobbing in the midst of her solitary erotic dance.

Russ Borski’s set is an interesting complement to the play. Simple and unadorned, the forced-perspective walls add to the play’s cinematic qualities. Their sharp, unreal angles not only enlarge the room but give the constant impression we’re seeing some bizarre camera shot.

Two Small Bodies is an ugly, ugly play. It deals with frightening areas of human nature. Yet the Immediate Theatre Company not only lures you into that world, it enthralls you in the process. They show no mercy, and they do it very well.