Replete with copiously researched speeches about which toxins dwell in household cleaning products and what happens to a body as it putrefies in a warm apartment for five days, Lavery’s play, receiving its world premiere at Studio Theatre, comes across as a contrived science lesson with some extra-credit philosophical musings.
It is the sort of purple presentation that strikes a pose of poetic elusiveness even as it tries to force a formal analysis on you, the way a university lecturer might propound lovingly on his or her own weird pet thesis. (Several of the characters are, in fact, academics.) The playwright as a result triggers a pileup of ideas: Quantum theory, thought experiments such as Schrodinger’s cat and the many ways “dirt” can be used as a noun or adjective all bump into one another. And if the play’s central metaphor is not conjured plainly enough, the physical production, overseen by director David Muse, provides more concrete embellishment. The floor of Studio’s raw performance space has been covered in a mushy carpet of mulch.
To quote King Lear, the place smells of mortality. The five cast members — led by valiant Holly Twyford and her acting partner from past Studio and Signature Theatre shows, Matthew Montelongo — trudge gamely across the decaying material, self-narrating the stories of their relationships to, uh, dirt.
This includes Twyford’s Harper, whose death is disclosed to us at the outset of the play. Dust to dust, and all that. (She also helpfully explains to us that dirt is the “inside word” for earth.) The other characters are Montelongo’s Matt, a neurotic type-A engaged in love-hate with Harper; Guy (Ro Boddie), a reformed drug addict turned holistic healer; Elle (Natalia Payne), an actress/waitress who specializes in erotic voice-overs, and May (Carolyn Mignini), Harper’s arm’s-length, professorial mother.
The cause of Harper’s death, after an acrimonious evening out with Matt (her tardiness ignites a bitter argument and then high-energy sex), is the purported mystery of “Dirt.” But the play unfolds so archly that it’s difficult to care. Though Twyford’s natural warmth buoys Harper, the construct overpowers her and the others. There’s only so much one can do to counteract a tweeness mulched into a script this thickly.
The production’s design elements achieve the desired effect of removing the barriers between the inside and outside meanings of dirt. Debra Booth’s set is intended to be sniffed as well as perused; the audience sits on opposite sides of an earthen stage, furnished with a few pieces of furniture, the organic and the manmade aesthetically linked. While costume designer Frank Labovitz dresses the actors unshowily in business-casual, lighting designer John Burkland illuminates them, and especially Harper, in radiant halos.
Muse, whose direction of contemporary plays is often meticulous, has trouble here finding a compelling psychological edge to all the rumination, and so he resorts to less convincing kinds of fireworks, such as a frantically overheated romp between Twyford and Montelongo. The director and playwright themselves generated a lot more heat in collaboration in 2006, with Lavery’s “Frozen,” a showcase for a trio of actors playing a child killer, a criminologist and the mother of the young victim.
In that more accomplished work, Lavery employed the monologue form — the now-overused device in plays that turns audiences into characters’ confessors — with significantly more satisfying results. Having them open their minds directly to us was the catalyst for a thoroughgoing understanding of the dimensions of a hideous crime. Here, the format feels as if it’s an expedient method of handling a work struggling with anemic dramatic impact.
Studio has given itself through its recently established Studio Lab program a heightened role in the development of new plays. Last October, it launched the initiative with “Lungs,” a sharply conceived relationship play by Duncan Macmillan that suggested the company was headed in an enthralling new direction. (As with “Lungs,” all tickets to “Dirt” are only $20.) This latest Lab effort reveals that the consequential task of coaxing out the new has its hiccups as well as its huzzahs.
by Bryony Lavery. Directed by David Muse. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, John Burkland; costumes, Frank Labovitz; sound, Christopher Baine. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Nov. 11 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.