“Dirt” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

One of the reasons I try to avoid writing negative reviews is that, as a theatre practitioner myself, I well know the truth of the old adage “no one starts out to do a bad show.” Well, except perhaps Max Bialystock, but at least in that instance, the bad show was funny.

No, people who work in the theatre generally start out with high hopes and great expectations, good intentions and contagious enthusiasm. They work hard, do their best, and strive, with a goal of creating a work of art which will entertain, move, and perhaps even enlighten an audience. I applaud all of them, and count myself proud to be among them.

Which is why it pains me to say that I found Dirt, now playing at the Raven Playhouse in NoHo, awful in just about every imaginable way.

I’m not eager to start with the writing, but I suppose I must. The phrase “pretentious claptrap” kept popping into my mind throughout its interminable 90 minutes, which flew by like thirteen hours in the emergency room at Cedars waiting for a kidney stone to pass. But that’s unfair. The play is not so much pretentious as incomprehensible. I know it’s written in English, because I recognized most of the words (“proleptic” was new to me, but I looked it up); it’s why they’re in that order I found puzzling.

This utterly humorless exercise begins with a 30-ish woman, Harper (Mandy Levin), addressing the audience from behind a largish chair in what is presumably her apartment, which appears to be a dreary slum, as there is a toilet about two feet away (even in New York, toilets in the living room are rare). She speaks – confusingly – about being 150 pounds of what eventually became “dirt” on the chair, and eventually we realize she is dead and is (perhaps) going to tell us about the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death.

Mandy Levin (L) and Maia Danziger. Photo: John Perrin Flynn

Mandy Levin (L) and Maia Danziger. Photo: John Perrin Flynn

Then she exits and an older woman (Maia Danziger) appears downstage, giving a lecture about Schrodinger’s Cat. Or something. But she keeps getting interrupted by cell phone calls from someone called “Harper” (you must realize we don’t know the first woman’s name is Harper unless we’ve looked at the program in advance, so the connection isn’t immediately obvious). The “Harper” on the phone seems to be a bit crazy, as s/he continues calling, despite the older woman’s saying she’s busy and will call back. Why the old lady just doesn’t turn off her phone is a mystery.

Then a guy comes on, also talking to the audience…

At this point, I found myself wondering if anyone was ever going to talk to each other instead of addressing us. That did happen – finally – in a scene in a restaurant between Harper and her boyfriend Matt (Mark McClain Wilson), where they are served by snippy waitress Elle (Catherine Black).

Mark McClain Wilson and Mandy Levin. Photo: John Perrin Flynn

Mark McClain Wilson and Mandy Levin. Photo: John Perrin Flynn

And then, later on, Guy (Jack Krizmanich), who – when talking to the audience – had told us he was a junkie and sex addict who only wanted to kill himself, turns into a masseur, or maybe a guru, or maybe a healer of some sort, and he talks to Elle. Sort of.

Jack Krizmanich and Catherine Black. Photo: John Perrin Flynn

Jack Krizmanich and Catherine Black. Photo: John Perrin Flynn

But everyone keeps talking to the audience, sometimes referring to him or herself in the third person. I think.

I know, it doesn’t make any sense. What the hell? Not much of this play makes any sense, and you find yourself wondering what on earth would make a group of (presumably rational) people want to do it. Did someone pay them? That, at least, would make sense.

Anyway, long story short, even my companion – not a theatre artist – said afterward he thought the writing was terrible. This is a civilian, who normally enjoys going to plays. Just not this one.

The end message of the play? Apparently – and I’m guessing here – it’s don’t bathe and don’t clean your house, ‘cause otherwise you’ll die a gruesome death from all the toxic chemicals in American commercial products. In case you didn’t get this from the play, there’s an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times tucked into your program explaining it.

Moss Hart is credited with the imprecation, “If you’ve got a message, call Western Union.” If only Ms Lavery had listened to her fellow playwright, maybe she could have just tweeted something rather than making us sit in a theatre for an hour and a half.

But let’s press on.

The set: the program lists “Scenic Design Hillary Bauman” and “Set and Lighting Design Norman Scott” but only includes a bio for Mr. Scott, so it’s difficult to discern whom to credit – or blame – for the astonishingly ugly set representing Harper’s apartment: drably stained walls, a relatively handsome chair with a toilet a few feet away from it, and what looks like a table built by a third-grader. With a primitive poster labeled Schrodinger’s Cat on the wall. Definitely not a place anyone would want to live. Could this be why she died?!?

Ah, but wait. Before long, this space also becomes a restaurant, then a massage spa/ yoga spot/ whatever, not to mention a lecture hall, the alleyway outside the restaurant where two characters stomp a rat to death while grabbing a smoke, and so on. But nothing changes except the position of some of the furniture. I know theatre is supposed to traffic in suspension of disbelief, but it’s really hard to believe a couple is at a romantic restaurant when a toilet is sitting two feet from their table and a “Schrodinger’s Cat” poster is above their heads.

One would think the lighting design would create discrete spaces so that this wouldn’t be a problem. But, in this case, one would be wrong.

As for the acting, all the characters in the play are the kind of people you would go out of your way to avoid talking to at a party. Which perhaps might explain – at least partially – why none of the actors were in any way appealing. But what I found amazing, and distressing, is that there was not a single believable moment in the play. Amazing. And distressing.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t have all that many evenings left. I really resent having spent one of them watching Dirt.

Written by Bryony Lavery
Directed by Ann Bronston

Through April 17

Rogue Machine Theatre and SRS Production Wing
The Raven Playhouse
5233 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601

Tickets: http://dirt.brownpapertickets.com


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