Nope, this isn't the précis of a new sitcom for King of Queens star Kevin James; it's Michael Puzzo's sitcom-like The Dirty Talk, which has settled in for a limited commercial run at Center Stage after being presented as part of LAByrinth's 2005 Barn Series and the 2005 International Fringe Festival. While the play never completely triumphs over its many plot contrivances, Puzzo's sharp ear for dialogue and the first-rate performances by Kevin Cristaldi as the beady-eyed Lino and Sidney Williams as the portly, hirsute Mitch help the 65-minute script go breezily by. The slight, unpleasant aftertaste may not hit you until after you leave the theater.
Mitch and Lino are hardly old friends. In fact, they're almost instant enemies, with the extremely short-tempered Mitch at one point ordering Lino to hide his body behind a dresser in the New Jersey hunting cabin that Mitch is currently calling home after his split with long-time girlfriend Katie. Unfortunately, Puzzo stretches out for far too long just how this unlikely pair met and have ended up temporarily stranded in the cabin, due to a sudden, severe rainstorm and an uncooperative car. Like many playwrights who think they're creating suspense, he's simply distracting the audience by delaying the transmission of vital information. (I, for one, was obsessing over just how Lino, who admits that he doesn't drive, actually got to this remote place. The answer, which comes remarkably late in the play, is simply banal.)
In between screaming matches, the pair open up to each other, spilling all the details of their respectively lonely and unhappy lives. Mitch, for all his bluster, is not only unsure how to function as a newly single man, but simply how to behave as a man in the 21st century. Should he be sensitive or forceful with the ladies? Should he stop seeking his clearly unlikeable father's approval? These questions are worthy (if hardly original) ones, though probably best explored through traditional therapy.
Meanwhile, the nerdy Lino, whose life would seem to be the worse of the two, ultimately proclaims that he is happy with his self-chosen lot. (Spoiler alert: He lives above the garage of his married sister's house and trolls for sexual partners on the Internet, usually disguising his gender and sexual orientation. Is that creepy enough for you?) In the end, it's hard to decide whether Lino is being properly realistic or maybe selling himself just a little short.
Puzzo, who has worked frequently as an actor in New York, creates a fair amount of pitch-perfect dialogue, much of which has the audiences in stitches. But his characters occasionally seem a little too theatrical. Would Mitch, whose profession is never mentioned, really use the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as a metaphor for his breakup with Katie or be able to quickly come up with a priceless one-liner based on the title of a former TV series? Somehow, I think not.
No matter what the improbabilities, Cristaldi and Williams -- under the able direction of Padraic Lillis -- tackle their characters with full force, never shying away from their less-desirable qualities yet rendering them as fully formed and sympathetic human beings. Both are highly skilled physical actors, as well; Williams' opening scene with an unreliable umbrella is truly hilarious.
Fortunately, there's just the right amount of talk in The Dirty Talk; the play threatens to run out of steam before it's over but avoids doing so, thanks to its brief running time. There's also some dirty talk here, though not as much as you might expect -- and no gratuitous nudity! Meanwhile, don't be shocked if you see Kevin James in the audience, looking for his next project.