Dirty Story

In the twenty years of Donovan Marley's tenure as Artistic Director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, there have been over six dozen world premieres, scores of regional premieres, and a consistent stream of classics. We have seen the church take it with both barrels, racism unmasked, greed laid bare, and women occasionally get their due. But it has been rare indeed for the company to directly criticize the system that feeds them.

In Marley's defense, it must be said that there aren't many scripts out there that are able to address the systematic imperatives of capitalism without sounding polemical or coming off as pure agit-prop. And it is also true that well-funded arts organizations, such as the Denver Center, Channel Six, and the Denver Art Museum are generally beholden to well-heeled boards who derive their wealth from the very economic system that wreaks havoc throughout the world to feed its intrinsic and ever-expanding thirst for natural resources and cheap labor.

So it is heartening, even if it is Marley's curtain call season, to see him lead off with such a biting piece as John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story. Despite his success as a playwright (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Four Dogs and a Bone, Italian American Reconciliation) and screenwriter (Moonstruck [Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay] and Joe Versus the Volcano), a sexually adventurous political satire is not what one might expect from him. But Shanley is nothing if not creative and unpredictable.

For those unaware of the plot turns to come (which I will do my best to protect here), the piece begins innocently enough, with Wanda, a grad student, showing up at a cafe where Brutus, an established but fading writer, and Lawrence, an enigmatic regular, are each playing chess against himself. While Wanda has an appointment to see Brutus about a manuscript he's agreed to read, her appearance sets off a series of acerbic comments from Lawrence before he leaves in disgust at Brutus and Wanda's conversation.

Photo of Susan Pourfar as Wanda and John Hutton as Brutus
Susan Pourfar as Wanda and
John Hutton as Brutus
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Despite Brutus criticism of Wanda's writing, he follows up and calls her up for a dinner date at his apartment, where, after a perfunctory meal and an exploratory conversation, things take a serious turn for the sexually bizarre and adventuristic. Then, just as you've gritted your teeth for the worst, the playwright turns the entire production 180 degrees, and what had appeared to be a dark comedy suddenly turns into a double entendre-laced satire, leaving us in wonderment, admiring Shanley's well-executed ruse.

So as not to ruin your appreciation of the same, suffice it to say that each of the four main characters represents a major player in the world's longest-running hotspot. And whether or not you agree with Shanley's take on history, politics, and religion, you're bound to laugh at the perfection of his extended (and long-winded) metaphor.

The drawback to the script, however, lies in its very success as a broad allegory: the human motivations and desires of the first act are supplanted by the political exigencies of nation-states in the second act; thus any potential emotional catharsis dependent on identification with character is traded for the possibility of a shift in the intellectual perspective of the audience.

So, while entertaining despite it's length, and filled with zingers, Dirty Story lacks the depth and heartfelt truth of, say, Jean Anouilh's Antigone (performed under the Nazi's noses in Vichy France), which made its political points without sacrificing interpersonal dynamics.

Despite these shortcomings, the drama is compelling and the performances noteworthy. With a combination of power, guile, and connivance, John Hutton creates a complex Brutus, entrenched in the past, yet with nothing to lose in the present; he is able to threaten Wanda one minute and appeal to our sense of fair play the next, Hutton's eloquent delivery bolstering Brutus' salesmanship. Hutton's characterization of Brutus is a delicate and finely executed dance that is integral in establishing Shanley's neutrality toward the principal combatants.

Photo of Susan Pourfar as Wanda
Susan Pourfar as Wanda
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Girlish, intellectual, and athletic, Susan Pourfar makes it easy to see why Wanda is attractive to Brutus even when he rejects her beliefs. Though tentative when they first meet, Pourfar's Wanda convincingly dishes it out as her entanglement with Brutus develops. Like Hutton, Pourfar plays it both ways, eliciting sympathy for her feminine vulnerability, then showing no mercy when she's got the weapon. Again, Shanley keeps us from choosing sides.

Photo of Mike Hartman as Frank and Randy Moore as Watson
Mike Hartman as Frank and
Randy Moore as Watson
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Coming off as a cross between a clueless Texas cowboy (Guess who?) and the trigger-happy NRA spokesman Charlton Heston, Mike Hartman struts and blusters his way through events until we are begrudgingly forced to admit that his Frank is the spittin' image of our favorite uncle (You know, the one with the white hair dressed in red, white, and blue). Likewise, Randy Moore as Frank's Pancho Sanza, Watson, draws as uncomfortably close portrait of a certain ally and former imperial presence, who is willing to sell his reputation for a yes-man's security (Yes him, the Laborite who still insists that the intelligence used to justify the war wasn't cooked).

Michael Brown's set design for the in-the-round requirements of the Space Theatre succeeds on both a grandiose and miniature scale, tied together with compelling parallels between railroad tracks, potted palms, and camouflage uniforms versus their toy-like equivalents.

While Shanley is to be commended for the depth to which he is able to take his conceit, he has overindulged himself with our time, given his abandonment of the initial story in favor of social commentary. This is not to say his case is ineffective, only that it is limited in the way political cartoons must stick to the simplest equations. Like everyone else since the British partition of Palestine, he is attempting to impose common sense and a political spin on a problem that can only be solved with a religious and spiritual solution.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Dirty Story runs through November 13th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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