Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N Interstate, 235-1101, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Oct. 8, $15-20
What set last spring's Drammy-award-winning production of Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events leagues and leagues apart from its competitors was not just its unique slant on the sharpest of relevant topics (a New York sophisticate forges ahead with a blind date on the terrible evening of 9/11), or its high-wire balancing act of hard-hitting drama (the protagonist's sister is missing and presumed dead) and surreal comedy (Joyce Carol Oates makes an appearance, in the form of a puppet)—it was the fact that these elements really did exist. That is, Events thrilled because, with the newfound Third Rail Repertory's all-star lineup of cast and crew behind its creation (actors: Tim True, Michael O'Connell, Valerie Stevens; artistic director: Slaydon Scott), I expected it to thrill, and it met my expectations to a virtually unprecedented degree. Rarely do promises get so mind-blowingly delivered upon, and in achieving such a momentous task, Third Rail immediately elevated themselves to the status of Most Exciting Company in P-Town, thereby making the expectations for their follow-up endeavor even higher than the first time around.
With the selection of John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story, Third Rail is two-for-two on scripts that subvert up-to-the-minute current events with bizarre situational comedy. Story can even be seen as a sort of sequel to Events; where Wright's play addressed the horrors of 9/11 itself, Shanley's overtly allegorical script tackles the nightmarish econo-political cesspool that has become the aftermath of that horrific day.
Known best for a darkly funny romanticism that has manifested in offbeat works like Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and the films Moonstruck and Joe Versus the Volcano (my personal favorite), Shanley's madcap foray into international politics isn't just a departure, it's an alternate dimension. A direct attack on the nations involved with the present Middle East conflict—the United States, Palestine, Israel, and Great Britain—Dirty Story is a political satire that is difficult to summarize without ruining its latent joke. At the same time, that joke, once gotten, features a punchline of such staggering banality, I almost want to ruin it for you on principle.
Third Rail's production of this extended cartoon is, as Recent Tragic Events was, an extremely tight, professional production with impeccable staging from director Scott and some stellar performances, particularly from Michael O'Connell as an overstuffed cowboy named Frank, and Damon Kupper as his foppish British sidekick Watson. O'Connell—who also received a Drammy for his portrayal as the stoner neighbor Ron in Events—possesses the best kind of comic timing: the effortless kind. Strutting about the stage in a fat suit and cowboy shirt, he is, much like the unnamed international superpower he is spoofing, somehow both blustery and vulnerable, with an array of facial tics and mannerisms that kill without rubbing themselves in your face.
Across from this hilarious duo exist two conflicted roommates: Valerie Stevens' Wanda (a "German-Jew") and Ted Roisum's Brutus (a "Jew-German"—the difference is important), who have the dubious burden of carrying us through the first act on the saddle of Shanley's extremely lengthy excursion into meet-cute clichés and philosophical diatribe. Brutus is a jaded, struggling writer obsessed with the slow death of fiction and the impact this death will have on our interpretation of history. Wanda is his wide-eyed apprentice-to-be, an aspiring writer who transitions from his doting fan, to his romantic prospect, to his unwilling fetish participant (a very, very weird scene), to his squabbling roommate. Their dispute culminates in the second act in "domestic" warfare, with Frank and Watson dropping by to act as mediators; a not-so-subtle (read: staggeringly crude) metaphorical climax to the commentary on present international relations Shanley has been channeling through these characters all along.
It all sounds complicated, but in the end, it really isn't. The weird deviations in the first act aside, Dirty Story is a shockingly unoriginal satire befitting of a Saturday Night Live skit, filtered through the three-hour musings of a brilliant playwright. Its increasingly annoying assault of tongue-in-cheek one-liners and obvious caricatures makes it hard to recommend, and yet its strange elemental clash of informed intellectuality and knock-knock joke also makes it oddly compelling. It doesn't work, but it's also unlike anything to be found in this town, and for the mess it is, Third Rail still delivers it with that giddy combination of talent, humor, and professionalism. My excitement for their future remains high.