To consider Bryony Lavery’s world premiere play, Dirt, currently at Studio Theatre, it helps to recall a particular soliloquy from Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet. “This majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors,” Hamlet confesses. “What a piece of work is man! … And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
The action in Dirt takes place under a canopy of thousands of twinkling lights and on top of almost 6,000 pounds of mulch, the smell of which wafts gently around the room, summoning up springtime, compost, and children’s playgrounds. It’s a quintessence of dirt, which, as Harper ( Holly Twyford) tells the audience, is just the inside name for “earth.” Throughout the show, the actors walk barefoot in it, sit on it, even roll around in it, emphasizing in a sometimes tiresome way the elemental state to which we’ll all return, thanks to bacteria, maggots, and the thoroughly gruesome process of decomposition.
Harper runs us through this process in nauseating detail. Early on in the first act, she informs us that she will soon die, and proceeds to dictate her own actions in an eerily distant way. “The body. It talks to itself,” she says, before running through her own process in getting ready for a date. “The body” applies lipstick, selects an outfit, and, in a possibly unconscious reference to Silence of the Lambs, puts the lotion on its skin.
In fact, all of Lavery’s characters seem to talk in inner monologues, even when they’re having conversations with one another. There’s the waitress/voiceover artist (Natalia Payne) who acts out her résumé of stage skills (swordfighting, accents, mime) while serving Harper and her boyfriend Matt (Matthew Montelongo) their dinner in a generically fancy restaurant. Guy (Ro Boddie), a former drug addict turned reiki healer, tells us his story in the language of therapy-speak: His “external landscape,” we hear, was all about getting high and screwing around in “bars, alleys, houses,” but his “interior landscape” was totally empty. Harper’s mother, May (Carolyn Mignini), lectures students on the principle of Schrödinger’s cat, whereby an entity might be both alive and dead at the same time.
The problem with raising all these lofty ideas about the meaning of human existence is that the ensuing drama gets lots in a fog of philosophical ideas, metaphysical statements, and uncomfortable truths. The elemental ideas surrounding life and death are interesting, for sure, but without a concrete plot to guide them, they just feel plain confusing. Lavery frequently makes her characters utter different speeches at the same time, the result being that neither’s words are understood. And there are so many different symbols thrown around—a butterfly pupating, a fearless rat standing still in an alley, the trashbags and flowers on Harper’s final shopping list—that the weight of them all starts to feel oppressive.
It’s possible, of course, that there was no meaning intended in the first place. But the concluding suggestion that humans are dirt—nothing more, nothing less—feels almost like a con after such a long dance around all the other ideas at play. Director David Muse draws funny, engaging performances out of his talented cast, with Twyford as fearless as ever and Payne particularly endearing as the neurotic, self-obsessed Elle. But it’s hard not to long for a more concrete plot to pin down the show’s ethereal and lofty concepts. This production, a part of Studio’s Lab series to help workshop and refine new plays, still feels unfinished, even as its characters explore the finality of life with a blithe sense of inevitability.
Dirt is at Studio Theatre through November 11. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. The show contains scenes of a graphic nature. Tickets ($11) are available via Studio’s website.