In the Blank Theater Company’s world premiere of “Heads,” playwright EM Lewis is as much a prisoner of her genre as her four Westerners are of the Iraqi terrorists who have tossed them, in pairs, into cells to await threatened decapitation. The manner in which Lewis and helmer Darin Anthony have chosen to handle the limitations of the locked-room form essentially results in two separate dramas, and the construct forces perpetual shifts of attention between the scintillating play and the dull one.
What does one do with a pair of prisoners? You can have them swap stories (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”), or add a third to spice up the mix (“Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me”; “No Exit”). But either they’re leaving or they’re not, and if they’re not, the relationship between them had better be rich and complex, and they had better change or grow over time in ways that auds can track and empathize with.
The guys in the stage right enclosure are well matched on those counts. Jack (Jeremy Gabriel), an iconoclastic freelance photographer who goes wherever in the world the action and a paycheck are, has been picked up with Michael (J. Richey Nash), a stuffy news anchor who’s gone overseas to gain street cred. New to Iraq, the suit is sure they’ll be rescued or ransomed, but the veteran just keeps filing down a piece of metal with which he plans to pick the lock and bolt to freedom.
Constantly exchanging leader and follower roles, Jack and Michael are energized by their escape plan, applying to it a “Butch and Sundance” context to reduce reality’s sting. In the wake of (offstage) interrogation and accusations of CIA involvement, the playwright even manages to put into their mouths a spirited debate on the responsibility of journalists in wartime and not make it sound forced or contrived.
Yet we keep getting pulled over to stage left, where the usually reliable, whiskey-voiced Beth Broderick is saddled with a thinner version of Tallulah Bankhead in “Lifeboat,” the flinty, jaded career woman with a stiff upper lip and ready wisecrack (“Haven’t you seen any prison films? You’re supposed to hoard cigarettes under your mattress and use them for barter”). She claims to be “a very real sort of girl” but her actions are anything but, and cellmate Harold (James Eckhouse), a famously long-held hostage clearly meant to remind us of Terry Anderson or Terry Waite, is a haunted, uncommunicative shell of a man against whom her flint creates no sparks.
To further diminish believability, they’re directed to spend an inordinate amount of time on their feet talking, even after weeks of exhausting incarceration. By contrast, whenever John Eckert’s lights reveal Jack and Michael they’ve both assumed new and interesting positions against wall or on floor that instantly convey how far each has come on his individual journey (and their appearance changes more because they get beat up more).
Before long it truly seems as if show has employed two different directors, so varied and expressive are the stage right tableaux as compared with the stiff, awkward ones at stage left.
The day of reckoning eventually arrives and “Heads” becomes genuinely disturbing, though not in the way Lewis intended. Images of such victims as Nick Berg, Eugene Armstrong and Daniel Pearl are so chillingly imprinted on the brain that it seems morally questionable, not to say sickening, to restage even a portion of such scenes on sepia-toned video in an effort to bring about some sort of catharsis. The gambit is especially dubious given that its emotional impact is rooted less in that which has transpired over the previous 90 minutes, than in those very memories of Berg et al on which the production is trading.