You have to maneuver artfully when you embark on a love affair. That truth sashays into the open with dashing verve and cynicism in the Studio 2ndStage production of “2-2 Tango,” a short play by Daniel MacIvor. And when I say “sashay,” I mean it more or less literally: This fiercely stylish and stylized work depicts an erotic fling as a dance-infused showdown between two men who are as physically virtuosic as they are self-absorbed.
Director Eric Ruffin’s crafty production is part of “Pas de Deux: Plays From New Zealand and Canada,” which features a double bill of thematically linked one-acts running in Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 space. In one of the funniest moments in “Tango,” the two calculating romantic partners, James (Alex Mills) and Jim (Jon Hudson Odom), trade smug bits of pseudo-soul-baring. Both men look smashing in their matching tuxedos, with balletically regal posture, and the verse-refrain rhythm of their talk has comparable flair: “I’m very independent.” “Me, too.” “I savor my independence.” “Me, too.”
A moment later, Jim cries “Catch!” and flings himself toward James, who is standing on a lower level of the stage. James makes no move to break his suitor’s fall. Just before crashing to the ground, Jim grabs James’s legs and manages to balance himself, inches from the floor — his precarious position speaking to the desperate emotional agility and self-protective tactics we have all been known to resort to in matters of passion.
So it goes in “2-2 Tango,” which careens athletically around designer J.D. Madsen’s chic minimalist-nightclub set, whose glass panels sometimes glow in hothouse colors, turning the actors into sultry silhouettes. (Jedidiah Roe designed the lighting.) Canadian playwright MacIvor’s script (which Studio 2ndStage mounted in 1992) is a kind of arch, jazzy poem, in which James and Jim reveal the mind games they play before, during and after a hookup. Sometimes the men speak in unison, or echo each other, or complete each other’s sentences. (Maceo Dolan-Sandrino plays a watermelon-bearing boy who haunts the couple’s dreams.)
Meanwhile, choreographer Nancy Bannon creates a zesty physical correlative to the characters’ intricate word and thought patterns. She locks the eye-catching Mills (known for his work with Synetic Theater) and Odom into tango clinches, complete with whipping leg movements; she pitches them into a Charleston and a supported handstand; she sends them racing around the space. The coordinated motion heightens the play’s central irony: James and Jim shun emotional togetherness, even when their bodies are entwined.
Bannon has also choreographed the play that opens the “Pas de Deux” bill: “Skin Tight,” by New Zealand playwright Gary Henderson. Like MacIvor’s one-act, “Skin Tight” envisages love as an activity halfway between waltz and wrestling match. Director Johanna Gruenhut’s focused production begins with a struggle: Tom (Jens Rasmussen) and Elizabeth (Emily K. Townley) hurl themselves, grappling, onto Madsen’s surreal-pastoral set: three buckets dangling on ropes above a bathtub on a sward.
It’s the first of many slapping, limb-grabbing, torso-pinning tussles — there’s a spitting battle, too — expressing an ardent, if frustrated, long-term relationship. As the play proceeds, with banter, nostalgic stories and reproaches, we learn that Tom and Elizabeth are married and that there is more to this ferocious canoodling than meets the eye.
Dressed in old-fashioned rustic garb, Rasmussen and Townley ably calibrate tone and body language to suggest the resentment, tenderness and craving flooding through their characters, who have shared life on a farm before and after wartime. But the arc of Henderson’s story is generic: Neither Tom nor Elizabeth have particularly memorable personalities, and their saga becomes a too-familiar tale of infatuation, betrayal, aging and trust. The play’s use of water (that bathtub is not empty) and fruit (there’s some oh-so-meaningful apple-chomping) refers too obviously to sensuality and the fleeting nature of experience.
“Skin Tight” seems all the more the wallflower next to “2-2 Tango,” a play that really shows off its moves.
Wren is a freelance writer.
“2-2 Tango” by Daniel MacIvor, directed by Eric Ruffin. “Skin Tight” by Gary Henderson, directed by Johanna Gruenhut. Lighting design for both, Jedidiah Roe; assistant choreographer, Graham Brown; sound, James Bigbee Garver; costume design for “Skin Tight” by Kelsey Hunt; costume design for “2-2 Tango” by Rebecca DeLapp. With Ken Vest. About 2 hours. Through May 19 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or go to www.studiotheatre.org.