Dirty Story. You probably know Shanley better for either his Oscar-winning script for the romantic comedy film Moonstruck, or his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Doubt: A Parable. Here, he’s tackling the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. (And I just lost you, didn’t I? Maybe I lost you at the title of this post.)
“You ever feel like the old tricks ain’t working?”
Aspiring writer Wanda (Mikaela Kurpierz) goes to renowned writer Brutus (Brandon Holscher) for advice, and gets a discouraging earful of it. Not discouraged, however, sometime later she joins him for dinner at his place, a loft to which her family also has a connection. Brutus is an equally rude host, but for some reason Wanda really gets off on the abuse, and the opportunity to hurl it back. One thing leads to another and suddenly they’re role-playing - she’s wearing a frilly dress and flowing blond wig and tied to a ladder, he’s threatening her with a chainsaw. Yet when her former boyfriend Frank (Christopher Kent) tries to rescue her, she’s irate and very plain about the fact that she can handle this sadomasochistic relationship without any help from him. Just before intermission, she declares that her new name is Israel. And things just get weirder and more allegorical from there.
“If history were about justice, we’d all be on the streets.”
Act Two just flat out places the actors and their characters in the roles of countries or populations tied up in the Middle Eastern conflict. Wanda is now Israel, Brutus is the Palestinians, Frank is America, and his pal Watson (Andy Josephson) is the United Kingdom. Wanda is occupying Brutus’ loft, claiming her birthright. Brutus resists being partitioned off into smaller and smaller sections of the place he calls home. Frank and Watson keep trying to adjudicate the mess and end up making it worse. The political satire of act two is a little easier to take than the screwy sexual politics of act one but honestly, you’re either on board with Dirty Story, or you’re not. There’s no middle ground. Anyone with a strong personal opinion about either side of this issue is going to find a lot to hate and love in Dirty Story.
“One day I’m going to stop apologizing, then watch out.”
Shanley didn’t write this play because it was easy. Director Denzel Belin and his actors and the Arts Nest Fledgling Program at Phoenix Theater didn’t choose to produce this play because it was easy. Nobody attends this play because they’re expecting it to be easy. Dirty Story’s saving grace is that it’s uncomfortably funny. Really uncomfortable, but still funny.
“I can’t take my eyes off the spectacle of the world passing me by.”
The thing Dirty Story probably does best is makes one realize how very little one knows about the ongoing troubles in the Middle East. I understand that a lot of people don’t need to feel like they have command of the facts about a situation before forming really strong opinions. Personally, I don’t feel like I should be getting really upset about the way Dirty Story portrays anything or anyone until I understand the players involved a little better.
“You have to care, Frank. It’s the only thing that keeps you from being a monster.”
Don’t get me wrong, I follow the news (as much as the news follows things that happen in the Middle East). Unlike Shanley, I don’t feel like I have a solid foundation of knowledge and research I’d need to even write an essay, much less a play, much less a comedy, about an issue this thorny. It’s almost obscene to think of sitting here offering opinions from a position of relative peace, safety and privilege, about a situation where people are dying on a daily basis and still trying to go about the rituals of their everyday lives. But then, of course, we’re not talking about the problem at all. And on it goes.
“Brought to life in the blood-soaked garden of world guilt.”
Shanley’s Dirty Story is at least trying to talk about the problem. You can quarrel with the method, but its intentions are good. And if it gets some bewildered people in the audience (myself included) to scurry off and do some reading and engage their political representatives about the issue, then it will have done some real good. If you want to see a group of actors throw themselves fearlessly at difficult material and wring some strange laughs out of it, then Dirty Story is your ticket. (playing Friday/Saturday 9/9 and 9/10 at 7:30pm, Sunday 9/11 at 2pm at Phoenix Theater)
4 Stars - Highly Recommended
(poster for Dirty Story at Phoenix Theater - l to r: Christopher Kent, Mikaela Kurpierz, Brandon Holscher and Andy Josephson)