Intiman’s Dirty Story Veers From Savage Drama to Sketch Comedy
John Patrick Shanley’s Dirty Story (in repertory at Intiman’s Summer Festival through August 25; tickets: $30) makes for a bifurcated evening of intrigue, dressed up in play clothes, but too declarative for theatre. It’s nicely staged and equal parts fun and wearying.
Shanley is most famous for his Oscar winning screenplay for Moonstruck, but he is also the winner of nearly every applicable prize for his 2004 play Doubt: A Parable (later adapted for film). Here he gives us not a parable nor an urban fairy tale but an urban allegory of international politics. What may be most interesting about this play is the juxtaposition of allegory and symbol-laden drama. The allegory suffers in the comparison and much of the pleasure of the second act is in the hindsight of the first.
The first half of Dirty Story seduces us into a savage romance. Brutus (Shawn Law), a well-regarded poet, is emotionally volatile, narcissistic, fiercely devoted to his aesthetic and spiritual visions…and totally blocked. Wanda (Carol Roscoe) is an aspiring writer and admirer of Brutus’s work who has sent him her manuscript for feedback. Not surprisingly he savages the work but he is so taken by her determination that a second scene finds them having dinner at his downtown Manhattan loft.
Shanley keeps our hopes for this couple alive despite Brutus’s volatility until things take a sudden turn for the gothic, eliminating our trust in Brutus. A final twist ends the act and sets us up for the second half. It’s so disorienting that we are left anticipating fascinating revelations and further mysteries. This will prove false hope.
Jennifer’s Zeyl’s set dressings out-perform the built pieces. The folding chairs of the park scene and the rug of the fourth scene could make one covetous. The rest of the set tends to serve the play in a stripped-down utilitarian fashion
L. B. Morse’s lighting is at times subtle and elegant and other times cheap and dirty but always beautiful and the moveable gels on the spots in the house are rather inspired. Valerie Curtis-Newton’s direction finds the occasional stillness in the breakneck pace and makes the highly visible set changes so interesting they almost serve the script. Nonetheless even her detailed work can’t prevent the production from sliding into tepid sketch comedy in the second half.
The sheer demands of the roles make Shawn Law and Carol Roscoe’s performances impressive. Brutus dominates the line count in the first half while Roscoe is left listening, feeling her way to the moment for Wanda’s response and enduring tremendous physical and emotional feats. Through it all they remain committed, though there seemed to be some accent wavering in the early minutes of the performance I attended.
The same rapport that animates Quinn Franzen and Allen Fitzpatrick in their roles as Romeo and Friar Lawrence in Romeo & Juliet is in evidence here. Fitzpatrick is appealing as that bowler-wearing chess player and bartender, Watson. The lank Franzen (in full disclosure a friend of some years) mines the appeal out of the obnoxious cowboy, Frank, in a somewhat awkward fat suit. As a character Frank is about as natural as that fat suit and Franzen does admirably in finding a soul in the symbol.
Dirty Story is an extraordinarily clear demonstration that when it comes to getting across an idea theatrically less is more. We the audience need to do some work to stay interested in a performance. When the meaning is too clearly spelled out we tend to check out. Yet, that first half of Dirty Story is definitely worth checking out. It’s even worth sitting through the second half if only to see the first half with new eyes.