This has not been a boring few weeks for theater people. It seems like every company in the three counties has decided that late February is the best possible time to open a show. Recent weeks have seen openings at Mad Cat Theatre, New Theatre, Actor's Playhouse, Broward Stage Door, the M Ensemble, the Promethean Theatre, Mosaic Theatre, the Women's Theatre Project, Sol Theatre, Caldwell Theatre, Palm Beach Dramaworks, and probably a few others. Some have been reviewed in these pages already, some will be tackled now, and some will have to wait for next week. And some unlucky few will be ignored totally, which is tragic but unavoidable. Nobody forced the silly bastards to plan this weird theatrical jubilee. It just worked out that way.
The new show at Mosaic Theatre, John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story, is very likely cursed. Somebody almost died on opening night, and the following performance was nearly derailed by a plague of projectile vomiting. But the stalwart Mosaic crew scrubbed and scrubbed, and by intermission, the lobby was bile-free.
Not so the show. Dirty Story is full of Mr. Shanley's bile, and while it may be inadvisable to blast a Pulitzer Prize winner's attempt at daring political allegory, I do wish the guy would relax. Most plays have a point: Some hint at it, some stab you with it, and others grind it down until it is about as sharp as a ball bearing and then try stabbing you with that. Dirty Story is an example of the latter, and it's too bad. If director Kim St. Leon can manage an 11th-hour, triage-style edit on her show — by trimming, say, five minutes from the first act and about 20 from the second — she'll have a real monster on her hands.
Because Shanley's idea is, as you'd expect from a playwright of his talent, a good one. The first act is a weird shaggy-dog story about a would-be writer trying to suss some approval out of a philosophically inclined social critic/poet whom she idolizes. She is overly gawky; he is overly dismissive; everything is overly talky. Act I of Dirty Story is the parley of cartoons, filled with windy proclamations like: "Ah, coincidence — the refuge of the unimaginative conversationalist!" Now, plenty of smart people will occasionally chuck such nuggets into actual conversations, especially if they're drunk. But a conversation created entirely from those nuggets — especially a conversation about aesthetics and the functions of modern literature — is painfully boring, not to mention contrived. One wonders if that poor slob didn't fake a heart attack on opening night just to break up the monotony.
Fear not, though. Very soon, all of this windy discussion takes a back seat to ball gags, nipple clamps, electric saws, and rape. Then comes intermission, and by that point, you're pretty confident that your evening will be a good one. The endless prattling about literature and art and meaning was all a wind-up, you realize, to a genuine freak show.
Wrong again. Act II rolls out, and by then, the real meaning of the piece is within reach. I promise I am ruining nothing by telling you that the characters in Act II of Dirty Story are not in fact characters but countries. The bitchy has-been poet is now Palestine (Stephen G. Anthony), the whiny would-be poetess is Israel (Natasha Sherritt), her cowboy ex-boyfriend is the U.S.A. (Erik Fabregat), and his ass-kissing little acolyte is the U.K. (Kevin Reilly). See? Dirty Story really is a clever idea, and nobody knows it better than John Patrick Shanley. Sometime near the end of the play, it becomes apparent that all of the windy art-talk in the first act was Shanley building the case for his political satire in the second. Since most playwrights would rather build their cases in private, figure Shanley was so overcome with his own cleverness that he felt the need to let us in on his "process." Which is interesting. Or offensive. Take your pick.
I'll go with the former, if only because Shanley's ideas are worth kicking around, no matter how bloated the ego presenting them. In act one, Palestine — or Brutus, as he is called — is lecturing fair Israel on "the story-telling impulse" and suggesting some relationship between the species' common narrative archetypes and the way historical impulses are played out in the zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...
What? Ah, sorry. That's just the problem: Even though Shanley's intellectual wankeries are provocative, in a way, they don't even try to be dramatic. Since Dirty Story is a play — as opposed to, say, a tract or a pamphlet or a thesis paper or a midnight rant from Robert Graves — this is troubling. And doubly so, given that all of his artistic smarts are blinkered by only a dim awareness of his own subject matter. Though the zigs and zags of Shanley's self-referencing avant-gardiness are very high-brow, his analysis of foreign affairs never rises above Cliff's Notes-level Chomsky. Is it accurate? Probably. Is it funny? Yes! At first. For a while, Fabregat's incarnation of a swinging-dick cowboy America (called "Frank") is just about the coolest thing you've ever seen. But since Shanley has only two or three points to make — that Israel and Palestine both have valid grievances, that America is a well-meaning doofus that has yet to face its own myriad culpabilities, that England is the cleaner-shrimp to America's moray eel — the play soon begins to look a little demented, like Shanley just couldn't stop whaling on his targets, no matter that they died long ago. You begin to see how angry he is, and it's unsettling — his rage is restless, and his attempt to pin it down in Dirty Story is a series of circuitous failures.
Early in the show, fair young Israel asks Brutus, re: literature: "Shouldn't we aim high?" Brutus responds: "If you don't want to hit anything." This is so true that Mosaic's big boss, Richard Jay Simon, should get it tattooed on his forehead.
For a good play that aims low and hits everything, check out Cheryl L. West's Jar the Floor at the Women's Theatre Project. It is the opposite of pretentious: It aims to be nothing more than a day in the life of an ordinary black family with a pedestrian set of demons.
Jar the Floor takes place entirely on the 90th birthday of the family's matriarch, MaDear (Carolyn Johnson). MaDear is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's and is looked after by her granddaughter, MayDee (Karen Stephens), a fast-rising academic. MaDear's daughter, Lola (Charlette Seward), helps out while MayDee is at work. MayDee and Lola are looking forward, with some apprehension, to the arrival of the family's youngest woman, Vennie (Lela Elam), a free-spirited musician who doesn't get home much. When she arrives, you may instinctively flinch at the barely suppressed hostility floating through the air between Vennie and her mother MayDee, and you will certainly marvel at all that is apparently not being said. It's like witnessing a truly painful case of existential constipation.
But all will come out, eventually. Over the course of the women's long and dysfunctional slog through the preparations for MaDear's party, more grievances are aired than you'd think possible, and they all arise organically. The play opened two weeks ago, and during the first weekend, Seward seemed a little uncomfortable with her lines — and this, through some special alchemy, did things for the show that having the script down pat could never have achieved. Seward is apparently a master improviser, and watching her try on the half-remembered lines and get into their motivations was revelatory. Seward inhabits her character from the marrow out, and everything she does, and almost everything about the play, thrums with the rhythms of real humanity and real family life. If Stephens has not been witness to some serious workaholism and parental condescension and if Johnson has not had plenty of hands-on experience with Alzheimer's patients, I would be very surprised.
Jar the Floor is occasionally maudlin — the histrionics of the denouement are particularly regrettable — but its small failures barely register. The slow and cautious unspooling of this family's past hurts is as affecting as West's goals are humble. She shatters no paradigms, and so far, no one has complained.