Every theatergoer knows that the characters on stage are not real in the same sense as the person sitting in the next seat. But in order for any play to resonate, there has to be an honest humanity at its core and enough naturalness in the characters to make the drama come alive.
Intiman Theatre has launched its comeback four-play summer festival with Dirty Story by John Patrick Shanley. It’s a bold choice and worthy of review but (spoiler alert) it’s impossible to discuss the play without revealing Shanley’s basic dramatic device, an allegorical exploration of Middle East strife. The concept is inventive but by turning the play’s four characters into personifications of countries rather than living, breathing human beings, the play becomes an intellectual rather than emotional journey. It provides no new insights into the most intractable political issue of our time.
Dirty Story starts off in Act One with what seems to be a straightforward if harrowing exploration of the relationship between Brutus, an award-winning but misanthropic writer, and Wanda, an aspiring author seeking Brutus’ guidance. Brutus has agreed to meet Wanda at a park but as soon as she arrives, he launches into an attack on her novel in particular and fiction in general (“fiction is dead” he decrees).
Star-struck and fascinated by his vitriol, Wanda later meets Brutus at his flat where he proceeds to act out “The Perils of Pauline” with Wanda as Pauline and himself as the villain Black Bart. In a squirm-inducing scene that borders on sexual sadism, Brutus stops short of physical violation but his emotional battering of Wanda is horrifying to watch. Suddenly, gun-toting cowboy Frank enters but instead of letting Frank shoot Brutus, Wanda grabs the gun, points it at Brutus and shouts, “call me Israel,” as the curtain comes down.
At this point, it’s hard to know where Dirty Story is heading, and its allegorical elements aren’t yet obvious. We know what seem like irrelevant “facts” about Brutus and Wanda, including that they both claim to be Jewish (she’s a “German Jew” while he calls himself a “Jew German,” whatever that means) and that Wanda’s grandfather once lived in what is now Brutus’ flat. But why Brutus wants to terrorize Wanda and why she agrees to act out the story of Pauline are complete mysteries. Even more inexplicable is Wanda’s insistence on being called Israel, but Shanley has created enough of a human drama up to this point that I couldn’t wait to for intermission to end.
Act Two opens with the words “Non Fiction” projected on the back curtain. The scene is a bar where proprietor Frank and British bartender Watson begin playing a game of verbal one-upsmanship. It turns out that Watson used to be Frank’s boss but now the tables are turned and the wealthy, swaggering Frank acts like he owns the world. Wanda enters, reveals that she and Brutus are now sharing the flat, and pleads for Frank’s help in evicting Brutus.
Only in the next and final scene is Dirty Story’s allegorical meaning clear. Wanda is now dressed in an Israeli army uniform with Brutus in a kefiyeh. Wanda has partitioned the flat into two parts and scattered plants around the apartment, making it “bloom.” When Frank (now obvious as the US) and Watson (England) appear, attempting to restore peace, the scene devolves into farcical hysteria and a battle of words that doesn’t resolve anything.
Carol Roscoe and Shawn Law do masterful turns in Dirty Story’s early scenes as Wanda and Brutus do their dance of seduction. And they make the best of the last scene’s lampoonery, jumping on furniture and screaming at each other like overgrown two-year-olds. Quinn Franzen’s Frank bears a striking resemblance in manner if not appearance to a recent American president from Texas and Allen Fitzpatrick’s Watson is an appropriately self-effacing Brit who accepts his role as second fiddle. Director Valerie Curtis-Newton uses Intiman’s new black box Studio theater to full effect so that the action never looks cramped; Jennifer Zeyl’s sets make the most of the tiny, 100-seat space.
In the end, though, it’s hard to know what the point of Dirty Story is. Shanley doesn’t provide any new information about how the Middle East conflict started and no one can expect a theatrical presentation to solve a problem that has eluded great nations and several generations. Even worse, likening the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a romantic tussle could be considered insulting. There’s no doubt John Patrick Shanley is a talented writer (Moonstruck, Doubt). But in Dirty Story he has sorely missed the mark.
If you go: Dirty Story, playing in repertory with Hedda Gabler, Romeo and Juliet, and Miracle! at Intiman Theatre 201 Mercer Street, through August 26. Tickets $30, at Ticketmaster.com or by phone 1-800-982-2787. A limited number of tickets will be available at the box office one hour before performance.