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Adam Szymkowicz’s Whimsical Comedy “Hearts Like Fists” Is a Frenetic Comic-Book Type of Play


Tiny Engine Theatre Company’s presentation of “Hearts Like Fists” stars (from left) Ryan Ladue, Laurel Ullman, Kirsten Ehlert, Mara Thomas, Tara Nicole Williams, Liz Webb and Jon Todd.

Hearts pump, they break, they beat, yearn, throb, keep us all alive. Anyone who’s ever been in love knows that a full heart is necessary when one wants to give and receive love. It’s also necessary to protect your heart if you are going to live happily. No one wants a heart attack. When a heart stops, life ends. And if a heart is armored, it simply doesn’t work.

Playwright Adam Szymkowicz, two-time winner of the prestigious Lecomte du Nouy prize, has written a quirky, whimsical comedy called Hearts Like Fists about all the metaphors ever created about the human heart and has populated his play with super heroes, a serial killer, a doctor who is attempting to create an artificial heart, and a crime-stopper femme fatale. The result is a frenetic comic-book-type play that beats like the heart that keeps us all alive: sometimes slow, often steady, and occasionally charged with so much adrenaline that it feels like it’ll split your chest.

In the current Tiny Engine Theatre Company production, now playing at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, the killer, Doctor X (played by Jon Todd), is a man with a face that looks like there are worms beneath his skin; and he lets the audience in on his motivation at the very beginning of the play. Doctor X is a heartbroken man still in love with a woman “with a face like a plate,” and is determined to pay her back for the pain she has caused.

That solemn moment begins the play on a note that is not returned to until the end of the show (SPOILER ALERT), and the moment — set off by macabre lighting and a directive that appears to indicate a horror setting — breaks into a million pieces when the first act opens with the trio of superheroes, women bent on capturing the killer who injects sleeping lovers with a lethal potion that ends their lives.

The three women — Sally (Mara Thomas), Nina (Tara Nicole Williams), and Jazmin (Kirsten Ehlert) — work as nurses with the sensitive Dr. Peter (Ryan Ladue), a heart doctor who is the play’s McDreamy. He endeavors to build an artificial heart, work that makes him a chick magnet. And the chick that is most attracted to him is Lisa (Laurel Ullman), a woman who is so attractive that she breaks hearts, sending men to their deaths.

This odd cast of characters bands together to find and prosecute Doctor X, often working in such an over-the-top manner that the audience doesn’t know whether the scene is a serious one or fragile and funny. Only one man in Common Ground’s audience regularly laughed, while everyone else seemed confused. That reaction might have been the result of the missteps in comedic timing or the mix of somber metaphors and truisms in human relationships with characters who could have come straight off the pages of a graphic novel.

The strength of Hearts Like Fists is the nonstop — 90 straight minutes — mix of strange characters and the plot that binds them together. In addition, the lines that build on the central theme of the heart in all its iterations resonate with you long after the play is over. Dramatist Adam Szymkowicz’s ability to create snappy dialogue and lines that speak to every human being who has ever loved or been loved is the reason why this play has shown all over the world. When Dr. Peter says “the heart is everything,” the audience knows that to be true and can buy the silliness of the three women as masked heroes because they trust the human reality spoken by the other characters.

Lisa joins the three Crimestoppers, determined to make the world safe for lovers, though she knows, as well as everyone else, that lovers’ hearts will never be safe, that there is no superhero strong enough to protect a heart from being broken. Dr. Peter, who finds himself falling for Lisa, tells her that the heart is like a fist, opening and closing, about the same size as that human fist. She realizes that the reason why she has not been able to open up is because her heart has always been like that fist.

Working together, the characters finally bring down the infamous Doctor X and stop his killing spree, but not without one more heart that is broken. That is the heart of the whole play and a good reason to see it in person.

SECOND OPINION: July 31st Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks:; and July 23rd Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:

The Tiny Engine Theatre Company presents HEARTS LIKE FISTS at 8 p.m. Aug. 2, 2 p.m. Aug. 3, 8 p.m. Aug. 6-9, and 2 p.m. Aug. 10 at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705.

TICKETS: $17.55 ($13.41 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel) — including fees — with discount tickets available on Wednesday.

BOX OFFICE: 919-578-1654 or

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Hearts Like Fists (2012 play): (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).

Adam Szymkowicz (Colchester, CT-born playwright): (official website), (Facebook page), and (Twitter page).

Paul Sapp (Durham, NC director): (Facebook page).

Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click To read more of her writings, click

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