Fringe Festival audiences have opened their homes to Brian Feldman. He has met their families and friends, admired their art, eaten their food, handled their precious china. So what has this glimpse into the private lives of strangers taught him about the people of the District?
“They’re disgusting,” he said, and he was only halfway joking. To be fair, he’s mostly dealt with their messes. The premise for Feldman’s show, “Dishwasher,” is this: He will come to a person’s house, wash all of the dirty dishes, perform a monologue of the audience’s choosing and then conclude with a single question: “Am I a better actor or dishwasher?” The answer can depend on the monologue that he cold-reads — and on how crusty that casserole dish in the sink has become. The show — the first Fringe show to take place in private homes — has sold out its entire run.
“Dishwasher” might seem like an odd premise for theater, but it is not out of character for Feldman, who has made a career out of a series of similarly interactive and bizarre projects. For “Leap Year Day,” he leapt off of a ladder 366 times. He hugged his father for 24 hours on Father’s Day. He has led group tours through IKEA speaking Google-translated Swedish; he spent three hours in front of an audience, trying to make himself cry. In 2010, he married a stranger in Florida after a game of spin the bottle to make a statement about marriage equality (the marriage was annulled later that year). His endurance work follows in the tradition of great performance artists such as Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramovic, but it’s more playful — and in his opinion, more theatrical.
“It’s hard to define — I’m straddling the middle, and I’m always pitching it as theater,” he said. “I was always more interested in theater that had a concept that was hard to define, or things that didn’t have an ending, and didn’t necessarily have a beginning.”
Feldman grew up in central Florida, where he became a child actor working on Nickelodeon and Disney commercials. But his first non-acting job was as a dishwasher at a restaurant, the inspiration for the show. In the three years he has lived here, he’s never lived in a place with a mechanical dishwasher, either — so he’s not averse to sticking his hands in a sink full of slimy, soapy water.
In the week of performing the show so far, he’s dealt with messes big and small. There was the Cleveland Park home with the too-small sink.
“It was hard to wash anything,” he said. “They had a door that you could enclose yourself in the kitchen. I used it to comic effect, it was almost like ‘Noises Off.’ ”
At another place, he arrived to find the host washing dishes ahead of Feldman, embarrassed by the number of dirty plates. Another house, Feldman said, “Told their nanny to not wash the dishes that night because the performance artist was coming.” And on Bastille Day, he showed up to find a big dinner party.
Of course, that’s part of the appeal of this particular performance — the idea that I could have a party without having to deal with the inevitable dish aftermath. So, too, was the promise of built-in entertainment. And, as Feldman pointed out to me in a pre-show e-mail, his performance was a great deal: The host not only pays a mere $17 ticket to have as many dishes cleaned as they’d like, but since the performance is hosted in their home, they can also invite any number of guests. So with the help of eight friends and coworkers and a spread of tapas, we set out to dirty up pots, pans, plates, utensils and plenty of wine glasses.
We might have overdone it. Feldman would go on to spend the next hour and 26 minutes washing the dishes.
“This is, uh, this is a lot,” he said when first confronted with the mess in my kitchen. Hunched over the sink, he filled it with soapy water and began to scrub. In the eight houses that Feldman has been to, he has burned his hands and dried out his skin, but he’s only broken one dish. So far, five of his hosts have told him he’s better at acting, one has said he’s better at dishwashing, and two couldn’t decide.
“I’m trying to do as good a job dishwashing as I am acting,” he said. “It’s subjective, just like art. Though, it’s easier to tell with the dishwashing. You’ll be able to tell if there’s a stain still on the dishes.”
There weren’t any stains. Feldman, who resembles the character actor Clint Howard, cracked jokes as guests gathered in the kitchen to watch him make all of the dishes spotless. When the final pan was clean, he declared: “Act One is done.”
Throughout the show’s run, Feldman has been asked to perform Shakespeare and movie monologues, mostly. He’s done the bench scene in “Good Will Hunting” and the final monologue from “To Kill a Mockingbird” ("This is pre-racist Atticus, of course,” he said, referring to this week’s publication of “Go Set a Watchman.” “I didn’t want it to influence the performance.”)
But to keep the evening’s theme going, we decided between three monologues that had to do with parties or cleaning. Admittedly, none of them were from plays the group had seen performed in real life. There was Steven Berkoff’s “Kvetch,” in which the character of Hal is fretting over a future dinner party: “But then after we’ve eaten we’ll have to sit in the living room with all the dirty dishes or make a fuss clearing them up.” Or there was Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” where the character Virginia talks about how important it is to clean one’s house: “If I were to die at any moment during the day, no one would have to clean my kitchen.”
But in the end, the crowd voted for the monologue that would be silliest to watch: The character of Mrs. Pringle, who is fretting about a disappointing party, from the play “Fourteen” by Alice Gerstenberg. “This is my last dinner party — my very last — a fiasco — an utter fiasco!” read Feldman in my living room, escalating the social climber’s rant into a full-on tantrum. He flung down the script, and the whole room applauded. After a brief vote, we decided that Feldman was a better actor than dishwasher. While it wasn’t a fiasco, it will not be his last dinner party.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Feldman worked on the Nickelodeon show "Welcome Freshmen." He acted in Nickelodeon commercials, instead. It has also been updated to include the number of households who thought Feldman was a better actor vs. dishwasher.