A question often used to poke fun at medieval theologians, or at the practitioners of angelology, is: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Such a question, even if historically fictitious, draws attention to the pointlessness of certain intellectual ponderings. Bryony Lavery’s Dirt, currently receiving its world premiere at Studio Theatre, roused in me just such a pondering. The woman on stage has just died a horrible pointless death and, as she describes the microorganisms eating away at her internal organs and the fluids leaking from her various orifices, I’m saying to myself: this is like ruminating on that age old question: how many angels can dance on a head of a pin? Fortunately for the audience, Dirt is a comedy. Unfortunately, it is a one-act comedy with a second act.
But don’t misunderstand me. Dirt is a comedy, and Dirt is funny to the end—verbally twisted and witty the way a Ph.D. standup comedian might be funny. Where Dirt goes wrong is that it tries to be more profound than it is, and that pretense undermines the very thematic through-line that the play purports. So instead of cutting to the chase and having us love the foliage and the mulch, it buries us in intellectualism and verbal cleverness. Although the characters dance like so many angels around the subject of death, they do not touch its humanness. Instead of grieving for the loved one lost, the characters grow disturbed. Instead of getting angry at the odd circumstances of a loved one passing, they become morose. As a result, we, the audience, are left feeling more amused than cathartic, and more in need of a quiet evening at home than any more culture for a while.
…Dirt is funny to the end—verbally twisted and witty the way a Ph.D. standup comedian might be funny.
As I’ve already suggested, Dirt’s tone lies somewhere between a Saturday Night Live skit where a 30-something suicide with a blown out skull talks to the audience about having a headache and a TED Talk on the importance of New Age crystal therapies. Now if that sounds like a show you’d want to see, that’s because it is—to a point. Given Ms. Lavery’s talent for dialogue and wit, it might even be a show you’d like to see for 70 or 80 minutes. The concept just does not have the legs for two hours.
Dirt’s story is Harper’s, played delightfully by Holly Twyford. For a dead woman, she sure is amusing—unlike Sartre’s hellish love triangle after death, Lavery gives us a world of eternal one-liners. Supposedly, Harper has reason to recount the hours of her death to us; perhaps, the absurdity of her toxic overdose would lead any healthy person to wonder maniacally “why me?”
Her mother, the quantum physicist, must not really be healthy because, instead of using her scientific mind to scoop out the truth of her daughter’s death, she resorts to a vague religiosity, that is totally out of character according to her more than observant daughter. Carolyn Mignini plays this motherly physicist with good sense but without the necessary emotional breakdown. Whether such absence is scriptural or directorial, intentionally urban and void of soul or cleverly undermined by the flow of events, one will never know in this more than quantum universe in which we live.
Harper’s lover of three years and fellow doctoral student, Matt, played charmingly by Matthew Montelongo, has a penchant for the trivial, and for numbers. After he discovers Harper’s decomposing body, he cannot shake the image. If only he could shake that image of rotting flesh as easily as he does her once vibrant personality now whisked like so much vapor into night. To free himself from that macabre vision of a former love, he quickly jumps into the bed of a new love interest.
That other woman is Elle, played by Natalia Payne. Ms. Payne is an absolute joy to watch on stage as the egotistical underachieving actress with the changeable voice that could get any voice-over technician hot and bothered. Unfortunately, her story should have been given its own play, another one-act perhaps, which might have been called “Plant” (a reference to Dirt’s new age ending). Beyond the material connections between Dirt and the hypothetical “Plant” such a pairing of one-acts might solve this play’s structural issues and spare the audience its odd indigestion at evening’s end.
And then there is Guy. Ro Boddie gives this chakra manipulating ex-drug addict an inner peace that is infectious. I really wanted to know his story, but unfortunately that would have been one-act number three.
Yes! These characters are fun and entertaining and, if celebrity culture entertains you, or if sitting down with witty personalities (the living, the dead, and the undead) is your idea of an evening out, then Dirt is for you. Just do not make the mistake of believing that intelligence and ego possess their own significance or that death, that supposed end of all philosophical endeavors, does not have the last laugh.
A Studio Theatre Studio Lab Production offers its world premieres in a stripped-down format, meaning less attention is paid to the spectacle of theatre, allowing audience to focus on the script itself—the characters and plot. Whereas the production used alley staging to good effect and the set was cleverly appropriate, the music tended to emphasize the play’s profundity, which as you may have guess by now was a misdirection.
Dirt is definitely clever enough. It remains totally committed to its wit even beyond the grave, and along the way you’ll find out about all the chemical toxins we use when cleaning our homes, and all the Latinate materials that can be found in our hand cream. You’ll hear in detail about the “gasly” process of dying, and may even crack a laugh along the way; but what you won’t feel is any grief, which may or may not be the point, but if it is or if it isn’t, wouldn’t it be better to hunker down in your logocentric world with a book and a Twinkie and pretend that death does not exist at all?
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission.
Advisory: Mature Themes.
Dirt plays through November 11 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington. For information or for tickets call 202.332.3300 or click here.