After a brief hiatus, Intiman Theatre is back and it is pulling no punches. Its production of “Dirty Story” by John Patrick Shanley, a part of its summer theatre festival, is a volatile and gripping show that you must see once and will want to see twice.
Shanley is a genius. Let’s start with that. The man didn’t win a Pulitzer, a Tony, and an Oscar for nothing. And he’s got chutzpah. Fortunately, these are exactly the two traits needed to craft the bold and brilliant political satire that is “Dirty Story.” Shanley manages to tackle the Middle Eastern conflict in a way that has you recoiling in horror and bursting out laughing — often at the same line. Pack up what you think you know and leave it outside. You’re about to empathize with those you swore were wrong, literally after congratulating yourself on a point well-made.
In a sunny Manhattan park, grad student Wanda seeks advice on her novel from Brutus, an established writer with a candle still burning for his unwritten Great Idea. Within a few hilarious moments, Brutus expertly dismantles Wanda’s schlocky, albeit well-meaning, manuscript. Wanda, stubborn and naive, pushes for more, somehow willing to put up with his abuse if she can learn something. And because this is a Shanley play, he eventually invites her up to his apartment and a love/hate relationship unravels with twists and turns that will give you goosebumps. To fully enjoy the impact of this masterwork, nothing more should be revealed about the plot.
Intiman delivers an exceptional cast and crew. Director Valerie Curtis-Newton has puppet-mastered a turbulent and intricate dance that blindsides you a couple times in delightful ways. Jennifer Zeyl’s set is a sparse cage, wire and wood and dirty windows. LB Morse’s lighting design holds several surprises hidden behind glass panes and under seats.
Shawn Law as “Brutus” is riveting, gracefully careening between a fragile artist, a self-righteous philosopher, and a vengeful victim. His restlessness is dangerous and engrossing from beginning to end. Carol Roscoe’s “Wanda” walks the razor’s edge between victim and aggressor, both unassuming and manipulative. Wanda’s ex-boyfriend Frank could easily be phoned in, but Quinn Franzen brings nuance to a cartoon character, a boy who suddenly finds himself at the top and didn’t realize how lonely it was. (Franzen is also playing “Romeo” in Intiman’s R&J and, judging by this role, is most likely quite good in it.) Allen Fitzpatrick as “Watson,” Frank’s aging British sidekick who’s been around the block a few times, is smug and subservient.
Although worth the set up, the play is a little cerebral at first. Brutus and Wanda’s pretentious babble on the nature of story and fiction/non-fiction is reminiscent of stoned conversations you might have had in college. Fortunately there are enough biting battles of wits to break it up and Curtis-Newton’s direction wisely sets a fast pace to get you to the goods. There are a few details that don’t align quite as brilliantly as others, especially when you retrace your steps at the end. Regardless, the play makes for delicious after-theatre conversation, hopefully over a crisp beer and something sinful to eat.
“Dirty Story” is playing at the Intiman Theatre’s black box. Tickets are $30 and it plays through August 25th. Do not miss this.
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