Dirt by Bryony Lavery at Studio Theatre

I saw the world premiere production of Dirt by Bryony Lavery at Studio Theatre last night, and this is my hastily-written overnight reaction to it.

Dirt is a play so loaded with metaphors, tangents and ideas that it goes past ‘pretentious and overstuffed’ and comes full circle back around to ‘interesting and entertaining.’  It is a play with a lot on its mind – the human desire to control, enumerate and scrub the natural world, quantum mechanics and uncertainty and fate, sex and self-control, the body and its functions, mortality and time, the pitfalls and triumphs of self-reinvention, guilt, the patterns and ruts of relationships, the Circle of Life – but ultimately I found it much better appreciated as a rangy, loose-lipped comic romp through a landscape of clever digressions than as a serious, Big Time Meaningful drama.

The story (as described in the program) is something of a murder mystery.  From moment one, we know that Harper (Holly Twyford) is going to be dead at some point.  The mystery is what, exactly, killed her – and what her death means.  The play’s tone is established in these opening moments, as Harper rather cheerfully and loquaciously gives us a run-down of the basic facts of her death.  She describes her (unseen) dead body as “105 pounds of dirt” in a chair, sounding more like a fascinated hyperactive professor than a heavy, serious Narrator of Theme.  “Whaddaya know!” she seems to be saying, “I died and my body’s just a bunch of dirt now!  Isn’t that weird?”

Since the entire set consists of a box full of soil, with a table and some doorways stuck on top, it turns out that yes, it is very viscerally interesting.  There’s the lively Twyford as Harper; there’s some mulch; there’s a chair; can’t you just picture them all as one thing in one place?  In other words, it’s not strictly academic, the comparison – we the audience can see the stuff she’s referring to right there under her feet.  In this way, Dirt is very much a play that makes connections for us – and throws so many at us that our work comes in making connections between the connections.  Plenty of plays work brilliantly, of course, by letting the audience pick up on the subtleties, but that would be the wrong approach for what Lavery is doing.  A lesser playwright would have left the dirt offstage, so that we’ d have to do the groundwork (no pun intended) of imagining the body reduced to dirt in our heads.  Not so with Dirt, in this or in any of its wide-ranging concerns.

The play proceeds through Harper’s last evening, when she shows up late (as typical for her) to a date with her three-year boyfriend Matt (Matthew Montelongo).  Their waitress, Elle (Natalia Payne) is also a fully-trained aspiring actress.  There’s also May (Carolyn Mignini), a quantum physics professor, and Guy (Ro Boddie), Elle’s Reiki provider/meditation guide/life coach.  At first, the five characters seem unrelated (we don’t know Elle will be the couple’s waitress or that Guy will be Elle’s coach at first), but, as one expects in most any play featuring disparate personages, they all come together and affect each other in the end.

The three characters outside of the central couple of Harper and Matt are all introduced in monologues, and in these monologues the play’s benevolent indulgence in interesting tangents first becomes apparent.  We meet Elle as she’s doing some voice-over work for a documentary, coincidentally, about how the advent of electricity revealed all the “dirt” in our homes and lives.  Her interactions with the unseen director of her voice performance are funny, and Payne’s voice work is utterly convincing as something you could hear in a sensationalist History channel program.  Similarly, May’s introduction is funny and yet ‘just so happens’ to have some thematic relations to everything else.  She provides a demonstration of Schrödinger’s cat in a lecture, complete with a stuffed kitten and a shoebox (again, the play prefers to make the visual connection for us, so we can spend our thoughts elsewhere).  Lectures and comparisons between human events and the Uncertainty Principle have been practically cliché in theatre (and film) since the 1980s or so, but Mignini’s charismatic performance, the inspired presence of the live props, and interruptions by May’s cell phone make the brief lecture fresh and entertaining.

Lastly, Guy’s introduction is just as engrossing as the other two, but, again, while it is clearly connected to the play’s dirt-and-cleanliness themes, those themes almost function more as a good excuse for Guy to deliver an affectingly disaffected monologue about how he overcame a past of self-abuse and hedonism to become a tranquil Reiki therapist than the other way around.

The play continues in this general mode throughout.  The linking themes provide Lavery with plenty of reason to gift the audience with theatrical conceptions of a couple’s argument, a restaurant meal, an apartment break-in, Harper’s slow progress towards death.  For 90% of the play, the themes are just more flavor in that way.  The reason for staying in your seat and smiling the whole time is the perfectly-tuned dialogue, the rapid back-and-forth between the character’s internal monologues and their live conversations, the obvious joy the actors take in Lavery’s skewed take on Harper getting ready for the evening or Elle the overtrained actress going over the menu at a French restaurant.  If Lavery and her cast, under David Muse’s direction, weren’t so good at finding the funny, the witty and the all-too-familiar in the proceedings, it would all be very heavy-handed.  But they are, so it’s a fine entertainment.

At least up until the last twenty minutes or so, when things take more of a turn for the maudlin; but I, for one, found that forgivable.  Who cares if the destination is a little cheesy when the journey is so engrossing?  The play is sort of like digging through the dirt to find a supposed buried treasure, only to discover that the treasure is a pair of socks.  Sure, it’s a bit disappointing, but playing in the dirt and throwing it all around is something we don’t get to do a lot of the time, and it’s all worth it in the end.

***

This ends the spoiler-free part of this response.  That part was the ‘traditional review’ part that you as a potential audience member might use to decide whether you want to go see the show sometime before this Sunday November 11th when it closes.

If you keep reading, I will now go into a critique of the whole play, including full and total spoilers for the ending and everything.

***

Are you still reading?  Well, if you are reading because you know you won’t make it out this weekend, here’s a synopsis of the rest of the play, so you know what I’m talking about and are mostly caught up with any readers who did see the play:

Harper and Matt, at their dinner, have a falling out.  It’s apparently a pattern for them; he always gets mad that she runs late and wastes his time, she gets mad that he’s a tightwad.  Actually, he seems more mad that she does; she treats it more like a game – a somewhat sad one, but a game nonetheless – where she bats ping-pong balls of conversation at him (almost literally) in an attempt to complete their pattern of disagreement-forgiveness-reconciliation.  Something is different this evening, though; for one, we already know (as Harper delightfully reminds us through asides savoring the irony of offhand comments), Harper will be dead later.  For another, Elle is their waitress, and she and Matt have more in common than we might think.  When Matt goes outside for a smoke and runs into Elle, they find a mutual attraction in their similarly geeky and overinformed approach to life and conversation.  They then… kill a rat that appears in the alley and are so turned on that they kiss right there.  Awkwardness naturally ensues, and they rush back inside, where Matt quickly leaves with Harper.

Back in Harper’s place, Matt and Harper argue, again as is typical for them – except this time, Matt has some real guilt about his kiss with Elle, so their standard evening takes a couple new turns.  First, they have some sweaty, sudden sex – not on the bed, but with a minimum of clothing removal right there on the floor (and against the wall)! – and then they-

Well, wait, let me interject her to say that this sex scene – which, wisely completely avoids any nudity – is possibly the best sex scene I’ve ever seen in a play.  Not the most erotic – it’s not even erotic at all, really, except in that it’s painfully honest and awkward, which you could consider makes it “erotic” for being unglamorously real – but the best.  It’s hilariously silly, enthusiastically and even gymnastically performed, and utterly convincing within the play’s skewed, aliens-observing-the-human-race-from-Mars world.  It’s totally awesome and a lesson to any other playwright or production attempting to make a sexual encounter a part of their story and their theme, particularly within a comedic context.

So – they have sex, and then Harper tells Matt she wants a baby, and the combination of bad timing and Matt’s guilt leads to a full-on fight between the adorably contentious couple and, eventually, Matt leaving with an unusually strong conviction to, actually, this time, no for real this time, not call her and just forgive her so quickly like he always does.  (Of course, we understand – and he realizes – that the real problem is that he can’t forgive himself that quickly for cheating on her.)

Unfortunately for all involved, it’s the last he ever sees her, because she quickly goes from vaguely flu-like symptoms to a disturbingly earthly bodily shutdown.  Harper feels feverish, then cold, and she tries to defecate in the bathroom (it may be even more daring than the sex scene that Lavery actually shows a woman, onstage [partly obscured behind a scrim] attempting to take a dump), but nothing works and, soon enough, she is holding herself still on the fateful chair to avoid the pain of sudden movement… and she expires, just like that.

In the meantime, we’ve seen some outside events.  Elle received what seemed to be an offer from Pixar to do some voicework on a new bug-related post-apocalyptic film, but after growing suspicious when the sound engineer asks her to portray with her voice the sound of ‘microscopic termites that have post-apocalyptic powers chewing on the Washington Monument’ – a voice-actor challenge that she, hilariously, succeeds at – she realizes that the engineer is just some weird bug-noise fetishist.  This episode has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and only the usual preoccupation with the themes (awkward sexuality, decay, personal reinvention), but, as with everything else, it is damn entertaining enough that the lack of relevance doesn’t matter.

Elle also has sessions with Guy where she talks about her career desires and the strange dreams she has; May faces a break-in in her apartment with an amusingly human mix of pragmatism and bravado; Matt and Elle see each other again and are again turned on when they discuss how they both allegorize their personal thought processes as, respectively, a hunter in the jungle and a shark in a coral reef.  Five days pass while Harper’s body rots in her apartment.

Harper takes another amusing detour through post-death cosmology, considering the various afterlives she may have condemned herself to as her spirit wanders about her apartment (she so happens to be a grad student in theology or some sort of history/anthropology).  She gives us an incredibly and fascinatingly detailed verbal dissertation on what goes on in her corpse in those first days after her death – as her body becomes, for the insects and the bacteria, a “restaurant.”

Finally, her body is discovered, by Matt, and we learn that May is Harper’s mother.  At this point, the play begins to rush forward a bit, as Matt is vaguely suspected of wrongdoing when the coroner determines that Harper’s body is full of unusual chemicals.  Matt begins a relationship with Elle, most ill-advisedly in light of his girlfriend’s immediately recent death, but Elle proves to be up to the moral challenge of being a guilt-ridden bereaved man’s rebound.  She takes it on herself to figure out the mystery of What Happened To Harper – and does, in another cleverly presented scene where she takes the part of a Law & Order lawyer (Elle, like her actress Payne, has naturally appeared on the series).

So who or what was the culprit?  Why, chemicals themselves.  No one poisoned Harper – though this is not a surprise.  At no point in the play did we ever suspect Matt or anyone of actual wrongdoing; despite the play’s frank attitude about bodies and death, it carries an optimistic and uncynical view of human motivations such that, despite the characters’ flaws and Harper and Matt being open, via their asides, about their attempts to manipulate each other, it’s hard for us to imagine the world of the play being one that also contains murderers or deceivers.  Even the ex-boyfriend who breaks into May’s apartment seems more like a frightened jackrabbit who doesn’t even scare her than a real threat.

No, it was Harper poisoned Harper, by unintentionally allowing her body to be inundated with varied and sundry chemicals.  Earlier, while readying for the date, she raced through the unsettling list of artificial ingredients in her skin creme; she scrubbed her bathroom for cockroaches; she drank tap water full of additives; she wore a pashmina doused in dry-cleaning substances.  It seems, we learn, that all together, these various unnaturals conspired to end Harper’s life on earth.

The play, however, is unfortunately unclear in whether Harper’s chemical death is meant to be metaphorical or literal.  The play is so clearly well-researched – from the details of those tap water additives to the wines on the restaurant’s wine list – that we the audience are ready to believe, if the explanation were forthcoming, that it is actually possible for someone to be poisoned by a one-in-a-million combination of daily-use chemicals.  But neither Elle nor anyone else ever gives a medical, final-step explanation for such a literal occurrence.

And after that revelation, the play takes the aforementioned turn for the maudlin.  Harper, still wandering around as a spirit but no longer confined to her apartment, becomes less the wiseass yet endlessly curious Harper we journeyed with up to that point and becomes instead a pitying observer of her poor left-behind humans and their pains.  She worries about poor Matt, and makes sadfaces at her mother’s coping mechanisms.  For a play that’s been so unsentimental about Harper’s death, and generally amused by human foibles, up to this point, it’s a slightly jarring switch.  And it’s made worse by a seeming attempt to gel the far-flung themes of the play into an environmental message, which is where the notion of Harper’s death gets confused.  Is Lavery trying to say that the artificial chemicals in our lives will metaphorically kill us?  Or was Harper’s death an actual thing-that-can-actually-happen? The latter is much stronger and more convincing, and would fit better with the play’s preference for making connections for us and its clear eye for little truths.  If the death was supposed to be medically functional, then it would only take another line or two from Elle for the audience to understand and believe that.

As it is, when Harper begins taking on the personage of one of Guy’s plants and pontificating lightly about the poisonous effects humans have had on the natural environment, the play trips away from comedy and into preachy territory.  Dirt works for the majority of its runtime because it takes a wry, observational look at the ways we humans vainly attempt to battle the rats, cockroaches and microbial soils of the natural world, not offering judgement but simply letting the audience make the super-connections to decide for themselves just how effective it is for Harper, Matt et al to try to control their world when they are so full of animal impulses and bacteria.

Focusing down, in those last minutes, on the main theme is not only disappointing because it of its cloying, self-important quality, but because it discards all the previous tangents as, well, tangential.  May’s discussion of quantum mechanics is unrelated to the environmental message, as are Elle’s voice-work and stumbling path towards self-actualization, Matt’s obsession with time and numbers, and much of the relationship drama.  The joy of the play is in its endless curiosity (as exemplified by Harper) for all the thoughts in the world.  A play that’s About Something has wasted its time by wandering on tangents, but a play that refuses to narrow its focus would instead have been able to be About Everything – and if it was About Everything, none of the tangents would have been wasteful.

Luckily – again, as previously stated – the journey, and those tangents, are so much fun that the unfortunate turn in the denouement is forgivable.  If I hadn’t made it clear, the performances of the entire cast under Muse’s direction deserve immense credit for this – Lavery provided them with a rush of words and ideas and set pieces, and they brought them to energetic life.  Twyford is (like you would expect otherwise) wonderful, making Harper convincingly human and lovable despite (or because of) the unnaturally overdeveloped vocabulary she possesses, and Montelongo and Payne pulls the same trick.  Payne also gets an actress’ meta dream in her extended scene where she goes over the restaurant menu while deploying every trick in her book (singing, dance, accent, mime), and pulls it off with aplomb.

Boddie and Mignini are also completely watchable, which is good because neither one of their characters is particularly necessary.  The majority of the plot is the triangle between Harper, Matt and Elle; Guy’s story about his drug-abusing past is engrossing (and a perfect audition monologue), and a welcome addition to the play, but otherwise he just exists to give Elle someone to talk to outside of the audience and herself.  It works fine, but it points up how great Boddie’s performance is that you don’t notice his completely accessory position until the play’s over.  On the other hand, May’s extra-person quality is a little more troubling, because, theoretically, at least, the relation of the mother to her daughter’s death should be important and devastating – but the scant scenes she gets to react are, well, scant, and emotionally forced and unrealized.  Lavery can certainly write grief – her best-known play, Frozen, is all about it – so the fact that May’s grieving scenes don’t work seems to be more a result of such heavy emotions being out of tune with the rest of the play than any deficiency on Lavery’s (or Mignini’s) part.

I’ll awkwardly segue here to mentioning the excellent design, because I’m bad at threading mentions of the design elements into my responses, but, hey, the design was, as par usual for Studio, wonderful.  Harper’s plot-relevant dress doesn’t seem to be quite the color she describes it, but it serves, and costume designer Frank Labovitz deserves major credit for devising costumes for Harper and Matt that they can convincingly enough keep wearing while having sex without it looking like they have magical genitals/underwear.  I don’t know if Debra Booth, as part of her set design, was the one who picked out the specific soil used, but it was the perfect choice – earthy and rich, but neither smelly nor excessively messy.  Consequently, I hope Erin C. Patrick and her stage management team get All The Praise at their wrap party for having to deal with the cleanup of the costumes, the maintenance of the set, and the resetting of the stage after the unsimulated planting of a live plant at the play’s last moment.  For reals.

And John Burkland’s lighting is great and Christopher Blaine’s sound is great.  Like I said, I’m bad this part.  I’m here to talk about the play and the writing and the story and stuff.  The people at Studio make it look good and they’re awesome.  Moving on.

Dirt is ultimately distinguished from many contemporary plays, for 90% of its time on stage, by the sheer joy it takes in language (I wish I had written some of the quotes down) and ideas and the ridiculously gloriously convoluted human thought-and-emotion process.  It becomes more like any number of plays in that final 10% when it starts to take itself too seriously and try to be more than “just” a  jaunty safari through modern life and its contradictions.  That 90% of the play seems effortless, but is a much harder thing to achieve than it seems, and Lavery deserves heaps of praise for effecting it through her precise word choices and ingenuous set pieces.  It’s a minor disappointment that she doesn’t carry it all the way through – although it’s hard to imagine where else she might have taken it – but, once again, not ruinous.   I suppose it’s even, in a way, the price of getting that 90% –  Lavery clearly put a lot of thought into exploring the nature of dirt and our relationship to it from every angle possible, and I could go on for a few more paragraphs poking at the Dirt and Purity and Nature and Control themes, but that would be sort of like poking at my food instead of eating it.  In this production, the substance of Dirt is much more worth the ticket price than the meaning of it.

I’ll conclude by saying that the direction Studio has been taking with its Lab Series and 2nd Stage productions under David Muse’s leadership has been inspiring.  The theatre is setting itself up to be a sort of counterpart to Woolly Mammoth in the way it handles new plays; if Woolly is the established home for big-concept huge-idea edgy and challenging new work, than Studio, if it continues on this path, could be the complementary locus for narrow-zoom, relationship-and-character-driven emotionally incisive new work, between Dirt and past productions like Mojo, The Big Meal and especially Lungs.  I continue to look forward to the work Studio does in this arena.

And that’s my 3,500 words on Dirt.  I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on my thoughts, especially anyone who saw the play and disagreed with my take.  Thanks for reading!

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4 comments

  1. Wow, I’m impressed with this incredibly thorough review (I noticed the “blue” dress thing, too) and don’t have much more to add besides “yeah, what he said!” I had fun seeing the play, even with all its foibles, and appreciated Lavery’s wry take on the message that our culture’s obsession with cleanliness is killing us. Plus any performance that takes place in a big box dirt is super-boss in my book.

    1. I am glad I am not crazy, in regards to the dress color!

      It’s totally a play for the garden-y-green-y crowd, which who knows how much Studio reached out to the… too bad the run’s over!

      1. Anonymous · · Reply

        Are you sure that you’re not crazy?

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    I’m speechless.

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