Tales of the hardships and dangers of love have probably existed even before humans had the capacity to write. It is a nearly inexhaustible topic for every form of the arts, but its universality and familiarity can be a double-edged sword, especially for playwrights. Adam Szymkowicz wrote Hearts Like Fists, which has been described as “a superhero noir comedy about the dangers of love” and is like a bizarre mixture of Charlie’s Angels, the 1960’s TV Batman and just about any romantic comedy of the last fifteen years. Tiny Engine Theatre has produced the Triangle premiere of this (mostly) delightful play and is presenting it at Common Ground Theatre, a lovely, intimate performance space in Durham.
Hearts are the stars of this play, whether they are broken, artificial, inflamed with passions, or indecipherable. We first meet Dr. X, a bitter MD who has been wounded in love. Since he has had his heart broken, he vows to do the same, literally, to all lovers. With a gun that injects a serum that stops the heart’s beating, he scours the city and kills couples in their bed. But don’t fear, the Crimefighters are here. Three women, nurses by day but superheroes by night, who solve crimes and have the capture of Dr. X as their highest priority. Meanwhile, there is Peter, also a doctor who actually has a bad heart and is trying to develop an artificial one to save his life, as well as others’. He has the misfortune of meeting and sort-of falling in love with Lisa, whose hobby is breaking hearts. Got all that? Well, that’s just the bare outline of a confounding script which runs the spectrum from brilliant to sitcom laugh track trash.
Directed by Paul Sapp, Hearts Like Fists used the small but adequate space quite effectively. Having seen several productions at Common Ground Theatre, this is the first time that I have seen the use of their balcony, which greatly enhanced the scope of the experience. The props used are sparse, mostly a long, low white table meant to indicate a bed, a simple medical cart, and a small table where Peter is developing his artificial heart. Not much else is really needed, plus plenty of space is required for several major “fights.” The Crimefighters engage in, well, instances of crime stopping where carefully choreographed scenes (by Tara Nicole Williams) occur. This is where my reference to Batman (ca. 1966) comes in. If they had a bigger budget perhaps you’d see “WHAM,” ‘POW,” “BLAM” flashed out like the high camp of that TV show. Kind of silly, but executed very well.
Lisa (played by Laurel Ullman, also Co-founder of Tiny Engine Theatre) is the main attraction of the show, both because she is the man-killer you love to hate and she wears a tight short red dress the entire play. She is sexy, haughty, and slutty, and Ullman played the role to the hilt. When she experiences rejection — for the first time since she had always been the one doing the rejecting — from Peter, she is confused by those feelings and joins Crimefighters to “give meaning to her life.” Ryan Ladue, playing Peter, gave an excellent portrayal of a serious, almost joyless man who has been so beaten down by cruel, heartless women in the past that he has effectively sworn off relationships and is consumed by his work. Some advice Peter: stay far away from Lisa!
The Crimefighters are in quasi-superhero costumes (designed by Taylor Shumate and Will Deedler) which straddle the line between We just can’t afford any better and Duh!, this is all in fun. At first this trio just seems ridiculous, but their personalities eventually emerge and the script grows so that they become quite a good comedic troupe. Sally, the leader (Mara Thomas) and Jazmin (Kirsten Ehlert), despite looking like they couldn’t hurt a fly, played their parts as well as written, but it was Nina (Tara Williams) who really stole the show. Admittedly, hers was a much meatier and funnier part, but Williams was simply at a much higher level than nearly everyone else on stage. Her comedic timing and personas were superb and of the highest caliber. Jon Todd was barely sinister enough as Dr. X, but couldn’t quite convince me that he was that degree of crazy to want to kill all happy lovers because one woman (whose face “looked like a plate?”) broke his heart.
This is one of those plays that I actually appreciated more after the fact than during the viewing. Can’t be sure why, but that might, at least partially, be because at nearly 100 minutes — without an intermission — it just seemed too long. There were plenty of good stopping points which would have facilitated some reflection and appreciation (plus concession sales for the venue!) without impinging on the flow of the action. So, suspend disbelief, don’t take it so seriously and you will enjoy an evening of Hearts Like Fists.
Hearts Like Fists continues through Sunday, August 10. For more details, please view the sidebar.