The strong smell of soil saturates the air inside 12th Avenue Theater's studio space. Set designer Silas James has laid out pounds of the stuff inside a rectangular garden bed situated center stage. A path splits the plot at a diagonal, and, at opposite corners, two dead bodies lie half-buried with plants and dirt. Giant patty pans, tomatoes, and various greenery surround the corpses. As the lights dim, the Werner Herzog voice inside everyone is left to wonder, "Have the vegetables murdered these men. The obscene zucchinis. Have they killed?"
They haven't. It's the two men who do all the murdering in the world premiere of Duels, a 90-minute play about an affair gone terribly wrong, written by Nick Stokes and directed by José Amador.
At one corner of the love triangle we have John (Daniel Christensen), a one-dimensional workaholic who treats people like investments and investments like people. His marriage with Irene (Marianna de Fazio) is on the rocks, and to save it he secures a country home. He hires Juan (Carter Rodrizuez), who just barely escapes totally embodying the stereotype of the Mexican pool boy by being a gardener and by only semi-reluctantly entering into a blackberry-stained love affair with Irene. Juan prefers to work with his hands, if you know what Stokes and Amador mean. Juan really shows John how a man's supposed to plant a seed, if you catch Stokes' and Amador's drift. Juan references a family and life outside of the garden he's constantly tending onstage, but we never see it.
The play begins at the end in a tone of Beckett-lite absurdity, with John and Juan popping out of the ground and asking questions like, "Who are you? Why are you here? I'm confused." All their arguments end in a gun battle—because, you know, men—after each of which they're both miraculously resurrected. As the play continues toward the beginning of the affair between Juan and Irene, the absurd mode slowly yields to a straightforward narrative, thus ensuring that the entire play is virtually 100% exposition.
But all this exposition is very lightly buried in two, long, tortured metaphors. Aside from the vegetarian language that Irene and Juan use to describe the sexual tension between them, John frames the relationship as a kind of parable about a coyote, a bunny, a carrot, a man, and a wolf. You see, John is a man and Juan is a coyote and/or a dog and they are both hunting a rabbit, Irene. And Irene wants a carrot. John wants to be a wolf, and Irene says she wants wolves, but John is NOT a wolf, he is a man hunting a bunny. Irene says she's not a bunny, and we're all supposed to know that this whole long parable is just more evidence that John's worldview is racist and sexist and mercantile, but then Juan and Irene ALSO use this framework when talking with each other. "You know what pairs well with moras is roasted conejo," Juan says at one point to Irene, who melts at this seduction. The Werner Herzog voice returns to the mind, "Will he roast her. Will he burn her flesh."
If life were one giant playwriting workshop we would say that Stokes and Amador want Duels to be "Irene's story," but this despite the fact that Irene appears to have no job, no goals in life except to truly live, no object in the play except to be an object who ping-pongs between two men as she vies for their affections, asserting her independence the whole way. She certainly claims agency at a number of points in the script—"Never drop the 'I' from my name," she shouts at John when he calls her "Rene"—but at the end *"spoiler alert"* she triumphantly walks away from the scene of her lovers' murder/suicide.
Finally, she's her own woman. Finally, she's liberated. Finally, she can garden and raise that cow she's been talking about. And then the two men rise from the earth to shake hands and congratulate themselves for ostensibly liberating her. Score one for feminism!
Worse than half-hearted feminist gestures and the "innovative" structure is the degree to which Stokes loves his own cleverness. "How do you do?" John asks Juan at the beginning of the play. "I do do," Juan replies. A poop joke! Then a little later on in the script Stokes makes the same joke again, you know, in case we didn't catch it the first time. Juan is a gardener, and he does mention his fondness for manure, but come the fuck on with this shit. The whole script is riddled with that level of "wit" and "language play" and it's hard not to see the writer at the computer screen laughing at his own jokes. Well, at least someone is.