October 25, 2012 at 1:54 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Date with death

Through Nov. 11
Studio Theatre
1501 14th Street, NW

Holly Twyford, Studio Theatre, Dirt, gay news, Washington Blade

Ubiquitous local actor Holly Twyford, a winner in this year’s Best of Gay D.C. readers’ poll, in ‘Dirt,’ a new play on the boards now at Studio. (Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy Studio Theatre)

Climbing the steep stairs to Stage 4 at the top of Studio Theatre’s expansive complex, the smell of earth becomes increasingly noticeable. Not a bad thing when the ascent leads to a play titled “Dirt.”

In British dramatist Bryony Lavery’s new work about mortality and decay, dirt is everywhere: It’s spewed from the mouths of battling lovers; it’s what a young woman feels like when she beds down her new date; and it’s what the lead character becomes when she dies. It also fills the floor of Debra Booth’s spare and otherwise clean set.

Lavery’s play tracks the lives of several characters but primarily focuses on Harper (Holly Twyford), a perpetually late doctoral student, who after an combative dinner date with her tightly wound boyfriend Matt (Matthew Montelongo) followed by athletic, angry sex, dies unexpectedly from chemical overload. Not a lethal mix of illicit drugs or a mistakenly ingested bottle of rat poison, but rather from lifelong exposure to the countless ingredients found in soaps, body scrubs and everyday household cleaners — all the things used to fend off insidious dirt.

Once dead, Harper’s lingers in her apartment watching as her decomposing corpse becomes dinner (as she puts it) for myriad bugs and bacteria. Five days later, she sees her guilt-stricken boyfriend discover her rotting body; and later hovers as her somewhat removed, professor mother (Carolyn Mignini) grapples with grief.

The characters comment on the plot. This sort of direct address works especially well for Twyford who makes an immediate and strong connection with the audience. And because Harper is well aware of her odious fate, she engages in some terrific snippets of gallows humor.

Rounding out the cast are Natalia Payne as Elle, a deeply frustrated Julliard-trained actor/server who does breathy voiceover work on the side, and Ro Boddie who plays Guy, a former drug/sex addict-turned-Reiki healer. Guy relates to dirt in an entirely different way from the others — he uses it to grow plants. Imagine that.

As the in-love but clashing Harper and Matt, Twyford and Montelongo (both gay) play marvelously off one another. Their increasingly tense, disastrous date provides the play’s most enjoyable moments. This production serves as a reunion for the talented pair — they’ve acted together at Studio before in “Faraway” and “Black Milk,” and in “The Little Dog Laughed” at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

Because “Dirt” is a production of Studio Lab (the arm of the company dedicated to fostering the development of streamlined premieres), all tickets are just $20. John Burkland’s emotive lighting design is top notch. For the most part, Frank Labovitz’s costumes are spot-on street clothes. But Harper’s often mentioned date dress seems wrong. Granted she’s an academic, but still — what 30-something, thin New Yorker meets her boyfriend for dinner at a hip restaurant wearing an unflattering purplish-blue tea dress?

Lavery (also gay) is best known for her acclaimed hit “Frozen,” a chilling three-handed portrait of a child killer. For several years she was artistic directed of the now-disbanded Gay Sweatshop, a London theater company that sprang out of the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

At two-plus hours, “Dirt” is too long. A little cutting would help, starting with some of those tiresome recitations of toxins, and an excruciating 11th hour speech in which Elle takes on the persona of a trial lawyer and sort of wraps things up. Also the show would benefit if director David Muse (Studio’s artistic director who staged a riveting production of “Frozen” at Studio in 2006) pushed the cast to goose up the pace a tad.

Though mostly jokey, a little pedantic and often obvious, “Dirt” is not without poetic and poignant moments. The most striking of which is the image of Harper’s lifeless body stretched rigidly across her favorite chair bathed by moonlight in an otherwise dark apartment.

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