Dirt and Casa Valentina
By Myron Meisel
Bryony Lavery’s Moving Contemplation of the Human Intersections of Science and Philosophy
While Alejandro G. Iñárritu customarily and pretentiously inflated the purported weight of the soul in his 2003 movie 27 Grams, Bryony Lavery more tangibly measures the palpable bulk of a dead human body in her insightfully written Dirt, a West Coast premiere presented by Rogue Machine Theatre with SRS Production Wing.
The British Lavery, founder of the fabled Female Trouble and Gay Sweatshop companies, had her greatest success with Frozen on Broadway in 2004, nominated for a Tony for best play. Dirt, by contrast, digs in compactly at the tiny Raven Playhouse in North Hollywood. This intellectually stimulating exercise roots about in a world of ideas conveyed more through rhetorical presence than dramatic progression, though it offers both dynamic immediacy and fertile food for thought.
Filching its strategy from Joe Gillis’ posthumous voice-over narration in Sunset Boulevard, Dirt discloses its protagonist’s demise from the get-go, as the deceased Harper (Mandy Levin) explains how, after a disastrous dinner date with boyfriend Matt (Mark McClain Wilson), she would soon die from undisclosed causes, not to be discovered until her corpse had decomposed on its inevitable return to dust. Relating the prior events, she had been apprehensive about their impending discussion about deepening her relationship, channeling her anxieties into compulsive cleaning, reading off the endless, potentially toxic chemical constituents of her scouring products, and illuminating us with the fascinating history of how a culture of obsessive hygiene developed with the transition from fireplace and oil lamps to electric lighting, which illuminated in its harsh brightness the enormity of the detritus in which people had been living unaware, comprised in no small measure of the shedding of human skin cells.
Meanwhile, her mother, May (Maia Danziger), is lecturing on the 1935 paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat, in which the animal, left in a sealed box in which a random sub-atomic event caused by a single atom’s decay might or might not release enough radiation to kill the feline, illustrating that in the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the cat can be simultaneously alive and dead until one looks inside, and reality collapses into one possibility or another. Thoretical physics lends itself quite amenably to existential metaphor, and Lavery’s plan gradually makes that pertinence clearer and more dense.
If all this sounds very deep-dish, Lavery’s command of wringing variations on her themes of biochemical destruction and individual mortality may be intricately grounded in contemplations of science, yet the cumulative impact of our intanglement (or, to use Schrödinger’s coinage, Verschränkung) with one another and with our mortal destiny becomes visceral and charged. While challenging, the ideas are cogently explicated, and not hard to understand, especially as one grasps the larger vision to which they are being deployed.
The characters are not themselves particularly richly realized, even generic, and while far from sympathetic in their actions, they remain highly recognizable, their flaws easy to identify with. They are distinguished by their degrees of introspection, which provides both perception and incomprehension. It’s as if by self-examination we can stumble into understanding others less.
Mostly, I found Dirt to be a moving contemplation of the intersections of science and philosophy, full of concrete human details that heighten one’s sense of our implication in the natural world beyond our own egocentrism. Biology carries on its work far more blithely uncognizant of our own concerns than even the degree to which we remain unaware of its inexorable force.
Still, there are potholes of shallowness within Lavery’s ambitious conception. Ultimately, the plot largely rests upon banal incidents of the urban sex lives of thirty-somethings that both resist and devolve into clichéd circumstances. For the most part, the many soliloquies are far more riveting and on point than the personal interactions. And Lavery’s penchant for flights of rhapsodic recitations of lists, while compelling in their rhythm and ever-purposeful and informative, nevertheless present dicey obstacles for the performers, all of whom valiantly attack them, under Ann Bronston’s impressively coherent direction, as the proverbial challenge of making compelling the reading of the telephone book.
Most of the cast consists of students of coproducer Stuart Rogers, and they make an excellent case for his prowess as mentor. Levin in particular transforms an innately drab and uncharismatic part into something of a magnetic star turn, while Ryan Walsh (alternating with Catherine Black) fleshes out with considerable complexity Elle, the waitress at the tony restaurant where the lovers let petty peeves trash their hopes of intimate connection. Elle’s thwarted ambitions as an actor relegated to insufficiently frequent voice-over work, at which she excels despite incessant sexist direction and stereotyping, provide essential counterpoint to Harper’s resigned fatalism; and while Levin carries the show, she could not succeed so touchingly without the balance Walsh provides.
With its excellent production of Sam Hunter’s Pocatello continuing its successful run at the theater’s new Oxford St. digs, it bespeaks well of Rogue Machine’s indefatigable ambition to mount this superb play amid the other bedevilments of its recent uprooting.
The Pasadena Playhouse’s Nonpareil Casa Valentina
I remember, back when young and impecunious, sneaking into the house during first intermission to catch the last two acts of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, only to be so smitten that I returned the following day to buy a ticket to see the first act and stay again for the rest.
Curiously, since then virtually all of Fierstein’s writing for Broadway has been as librettist for musicals, so it’s been a long wait for a straight play. Casa Valentina, nominated for four Tonys in 2014, including best play (though ironically with a much shorter run than Lavery’s far less audience-pleasing Frozen), arrives triumphantly in its west coast premiere in what may be the Pasadena Playhouse’s finest and most popular offering in years (since perhaps Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius in 2008, upon reflex recall).
Set in 1962 at a Catskills lodge dedicated as a refuge for transvestite men to be fully at ease expressing their hidden, forbidden identities in one another’s society, Casa Valentina expertly encases an enlightening historical perspective on a neglected and little-understood subculture within a vastly entertaining comedy-drama readily accessible to all save the most recalcitrant sensibilities.
Fierstein has the knack for juxtaposing side-splitting verbal and visual humor with tender pathos, and under David Lee’s expert direction of an experienced ensemble that knows how to sock it all across, Casa Valentina could well end up as the local commercial theater’s nonpareil hit of the year, a show to occasion reflection while never scanting the laughs — Arthur Miller with guffaws.
Casa Valentina adroitly initiates its audience into a secret society, leading us gently but firmly into its mores and ambience, the infectious goodwill of the blunt males aspiring to conjure up their inner femininity as a compulsion to self-expression. They aspire to ever-higher delicacies even as societal repression brings out either finer moral principles or fearful self-protection. Taking place over an eventful fourteen hours, in various spaces about Tom Buderwitz’s astonishingly supple and versatile set, it’s a long day’s journey into night for this motley gang of aspirational ladies.
Naturally, there’s a snake in this Eden, an ambitious organizer of a national movement for social and legal acceptance of transvestism, an admirable crusade, yet one all too ready to advance its agenda at the expense of the “homosexual” (to use the parlance of the time, as Fierstein accurately employs) community. Public animus of the era could not distinguish between the two, and while all the Valentina patrons fear being inaccurately tarred as “immoral child predators,” others have experienced a natural supportive alliance with their fraternal brothers in socially forbidden identities.
The moral and political arguments aren’t advanced subtly, yet Fierstein evinces a genuine even-handedness in investing all views, even those he condemns, with nuance and the curse of good intentions. With his unerring popular instincts, he’s inclusive in recognizing the humanity in those with whom he encourages us to disagree and in his insistence on compassion as a virtue above all others in civil discourse.
The entire ensemble excels on every level of behavioral detail, necessarily abetted by Kate Bergh’s brilliant character costuming. (Rarely has it been so evident onstage that the actors locate their characters’ essences through their choice of shoes.) Director Lee’s trump contribution is to impart such a delicate balance to the often raucous proceedings that each actor shines individually while contributing to the sturdy fabric of the whole tapestry.
Whether or not Oscar Wilde actually decreed that good artists borrow while great ones steal, it’s a trifle indulgent that Fierstein quotes so copiously from Wilde’s bon mots, no matter how apropos and delightful. The play itself perhaps achieves its points and effects so effortlessly that it can appear lightweight, though even when it stoops to conquer, it implies a heft and startling relevance to our own time without compromising its talent to amuse.
Dirt, The Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., NoHo; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 17. (800) 838-3006, roguemachinetheatre.com, Running time: One hour, 32 minutes.
Casa Valentina, The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through April 10. (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes including intermission.