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Bryony Lavery’s Dirt is the second production in Studio’s Lab series, which presents still-in-development new works for the bargain price of $20, and it arrives about a year after the first, Duncan MacMillan’s superb Lungs. Intentionally or not, Dirt shares with its predecessor an obsession with mortality and decay and the ecological cost of humankind’s insistence that we exist outside of the natural order. But where Lungs chronicled a couple’s existential pickle over how any sane person could bring a child into a world as mad as this one, Dirt is an exploration of, well, more or less the same thing, actually. Only it’s centered on a couple that’s less mutually committed and 10 or 15 years closer to the final curtain than the twentysomethings in Lungs. And the couple is more of a trio. And one of them is dead.
Happily, this topic is an inexhaustible well. And in the hands of a playwright as fluent as Lavery, who also wrote the boxing drama Beautiful Burnout, it provides for an evening of theater that gives us a few poetic moments and a few satisfying laughs, as if to compensate for its stirring up of existential angst. Lavery’s to-dust-we-shall-return meditation is at once metaphysical and hyperphysical, consumed with (and by) the biological processes—largely invisible, when our fragile bodies are at peak efficiency—that supply our consciousness and enable us to think of ourselves as more than ambulatory tubes of meat. That’s why you get to see Holly Twyford groaning on a toilet. That’s why Twyford and Matthew Montelongo have an onstage tryst as bruising as the wrestling matches in Woolly Mammoth’s recent The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. (It does for make-up sex what Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master does for handjobs.)
Dirt isn’t as fully successful as Lungs. Patches of it, particularly in the second act, are tentative and unwieldy. It’s got five characters but is only interested in the three. It’s at least 15 minutes too long. But the love triangle, or love-hate triangle, or maybe hate triangle, at its core is indelible enough to make me crave a revision that chisels Dirt down to fighting weight. And the cast of ringers director David Muse has assembled makes even this imperfect version compulsively watchable.
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Lavery drops us in on the last night in the shared life of a fractious Manhattan couple. Harper (Twyford) is verbalizing in clinical detail her preparations for a big date with her on-again, off-again partner, Matt (Montelongo). She refers to herself as “the body” in the play’s first minute, tipping us off, like poor Joe Gillis floating in the pool in the first scene in Sunset Boulevard did, that our narrator will not survive the story. By Act 2, she’s reporting her decomposition in the clipped meter to which we grow accustomed in Act 1. “Insects are dining in every part of her,” she says. Then, switching tenses, “I’m leaking fluids. I’m producing gas.” But this isn’t a Farrelly Brothers movie. These aren’t laugh lines.
The triangle’s third corner is Elle—a charming, slightly-too-credulous actress who waits on Harper and Matt at the high-end organic restaurant Matt has selected for the occasion. “I’m classically trained,” she chirps in our direction while bringing the bickering couple their imaginary plates of pretentious food. “Just look at this mime!”
Natalia Payne, a winsome Canadian actress making her D.C. stage debut, imbues Elle with a plucky optimism. She’s never more delightful to watch than in a pair of scenes set in a recording booth. The sequence of emotion that plays across her face as she tries to comply with an unseen engineer’s direction to make her nature-documentary voiceover sound smuttier is one of the show’s few moments of pleasure that doesn’t immediately point to something darker.
Elle’s earnest recital of her artistic and sexual pique completes Lavery’s three-part harmony of discontent. Harper is transfixed by the ingredients list on her bottles of hand cream and toilet cleaner; Matt tallies the time the chronically tardy Harper has wasted over the life of their relationship. Chemistry and mathematics wield vast, cool, and unsympathetic influence over lives we like to imagine we control.
The Lab format, with its emphasis on thrift, makes you question every inclusion. Debra Booth’s set seems lavish only compared to the Apple Store tabula rasa of Lungs: The stage, positioned between opposing rows of seats, has a mulch-covered floor and a scrim on either side than can be made transparent or opaque depending on how it’s lit. There’s a long table, two chairs, and that toilet.
The economy of the set heightens our sense that two of Dirt’s five characters feel like excess baggage. Harper’s mother (Carolyn Mignini) shows up early to explain Schrödinger’s Cat, but the lesson in quantum mechanics feels like thematic underlining. As for Guy, Elle’s Reiki guru (or something), yikes: Even a nuanced performance from Ro Boddie can’t conceal that the part Lavery has written looks an awful lot like the narrative type often referred to as the Magical Negro, a character with no goals or problems of his own but plenty of this-too-shall-pass-Miss-Daisy wisdom for his troubled white-lady friend. (He has a monologue about how he used to be an addict, and Boddie delivers it beautifully, but it isn’t enough.) Guy actually invites Elle to let go of her problems by dancing, “because we can. And because we’re good at it!” Oof.
Still, the play’s virtues far outweigh its shortcomings, and its fatalistic epigram resonates: Inside each of us is the raw matter on which future generations shall feed. And inside this five character, two-hour-plus-intermission play is a one-act, 100-minute, three hander that I can’t wait to see.