Boudoir shots…pictures of trash on the street…a framed portrait of Ronald Reagan, Dirty Pictures certainly has no reservations exploring all the different literal meanings of its title. The new play by D.W. Gregory, and presented by Rapid Lemon Productions, concerns a group of four people in a Colorado mountain town. Specifically, in a rundown bar during the Regan depression. Chet, the Vietnam War Veteran who is also a photographer, Bonnie, the low neckline wearing waitress who doesn’t want to work, Dan, the alcoholic bible thumping republican owner of the bar, and Judy, the one who runs the whole show and keeps the business afloat, are the characters in this sleepy bar. Gregory uses this play as an attempt at subverting our ideas of people and location, constantly shifting our perspectives of what these archetypal characters are capable of doing and thinking. While she does find success throughout with this, she never quite manages to clarify why any of it matters. Audiences are left after the final closing moments going “but what was the point?”
The whole show seemed to be an attempted homage to sitcoms of the past, Three’s Company, All in the Family, Golden Girls. However that only worked for maybe 40% of the play. The rest of the time that approach felt a little bit like trying to fit a square block into a circular hole. Let me make this clear though, I’ve never laughed harder at a show than I did at certain moments of Dirty Pictures. So when I say it works 40% of the time I mean it WORKS for 40% of the show. In a way it makes it easy to get through the other 60% of the show just to see moments like Bonnie (played by Chara Bauer) finally getting to look at her “dirty pictures” while everyone is fighting behind her and exclaim “They’re amazing!!” Even so, the show as a whole simply does not consistently land.
My struggle here is trying to figure out whether it doesn’t land because the script doesn’t work, the direction doesn’t work, or the acting doesn’t work. It seemed a bit of a toss up between all three. The script seemed almost timid, as if it wanted to make strong points but didn’t know how. For instance it’s fairly clear that the script explores how we use people as objects in our own lives. How everyone is just the subject of our perspective and they exist as we see them. They are capable of doing only what we perceive them capable of doing. Gregory attempts to set up those perceptions and then destroy them, but never really manages to completely achieve this goal in any significant way. She goes the route of underplaying this theme, which is the more interesting route to travel no question about it, but unfortunately she goes almost too subtle to the point where I don’t see how this play connects to anything outside of itself. While I absolutely never want to be spoon-fed or hit over the head with the “message,” I do wish the play was a bit stronger in its statements as it examines the aspect of perspective as it relates to the human condition.
The direction by Lance Bankerd had a tendency to seem uneven. So much attention and care were given to the details of the world. The atmosphere and unity of all the aspects of production, as well as the camp aesthetic that was being attempted, was crystalline and precise. I’ve been in that bar before, I’ve seen that town before, and that is a huge credit to Lance Bankerd’s abilities. However, it seemed that almost no attention was given to guiding the characters through this world. At times the actors seemed unsure of how to interact with Bankerd’s creations. The actors mostly read as if they were either unsure of the direction being asked of them, or if they just didn’t know how to execute it.
Even though the production seemed at odds with itself, there were some moments where everything fell into place and the story was elevated quite nicely. Bonnie’s final moment in the play was beautifully played and packed with emotional honesty. Terrance Fleming, playing Dan, has a hold of the material and aesthetic the most and is able to send you laughing with just a sideways glance. Matthew Lindsay Payne as Chet soars when he is working with a great scene partner, even if his moments alone on stage are marred by presentational acting. Allison Sarah Burrell as Judy, while obviously less seasoned than the other actors, played her character with such strength and forward momentum that she has identified herself as an actor to look out for in future productions.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? The show is not perfect, but here’s the thing, it is a world premier by the author of “Radium Girls” which was just announced as being one of the top ten produced plays in High School Theatres last season. The fact that Baltimore was chosen to premier this piece is a gift to us! And while it still needs work, new plays need significantly more audience feedback and attendance in order to grow than already established works. So I say GO. It’s a funny piece that with some adjustments has the potential to go on to have a long theatrical life.
Running through October 21st at the Theater Project. Running time about two hours with one intermission.