Florencia Lozano and David Deblinger in Dirty Story 
(Photo: Webb Wilcoxen)
Florencia Lozano and David Deblinger in Dirty Story
(Photo: Webb Wilcoxen)
"Conflict requires common ground," says a character early on in the LAByrinth Theater Company's production of John Patrick Shanley's latest play, Dirty Story. Nowhere is this statement truer than in the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, where the problem is literally the ground that the two nations have in common. Shanley's dark comedy tackles this subject through humor and metaphor, and if it's not quite successful, there's no faulting the playwright-director's ambition.

The first act finds graduate student Wanda (Florencia Lozano) seeking the advice of successful writer Brutus (David Deblinger). They meet in a public park and Brutus proceeds to pick apart, in no uncertain terms, the manuscript Wanda had sent to him. "It was wretched, it was ignominious, it was a shande [Yiddish word meaning "shame"]," he tells her. "It takes 17 trees to make one ton of paper. You might think about that the next time you consider writing."

Deblinger is outstanding in this role, making his character extremely unlikable and savagely funny at the same time. A story that he relates in the second scene is by far the evening's comic highlight, as the actor takes on a number of different vocal and physical mannerisms to convey the tale of a fish who leaves his school to find out the meaning of the word "water."

As in many of his works, Shanley wrestles with archetypes here. Usually, this takes the form of highly charged, almost mythic battles between the sexes; his characters verbally spar with each other in elevated phrases and muscular language. In Dirty Story, the playwright gives Brutus a similar obsession with archetype -- in particular, melodrama's fascination with the villain and the victim. When Wanda points out that the hero is another common melodramatic archetype, Brutus snaps: "The hero is only an interruption. For my purposes, there is no hero."

Act I of Dirty Story is, however, only the set-up for what Shanley really wants to explore. There is no way to discuss this play without revealing a number of plot twists, so be forewarned. In Act II, Shanley clarifies his metaphorical focus even as he deconstructs the archetype. While the first act sets up Brutus as villain and Wanda as victim, the second act finds that it's not so easy to distinguish villain/victim status between the two characters. We also hear from would-be hero Frank (Chris McGarry) and his sidekick, Watson (Michael Puzzo). And it becomes obvious that Brutus, Wanda, Frank, and Watson represent -- respectively -- Palestine, Israel, America, and Britain.

Following the climactic events of the first act, Brutus and Wanda find themselves sharing an apartment, but they don't get along very well. Wanda asks Frank to intercede. Brutus had lived in the apartment before Wanda -- but it turns out that Wanda's grandfather had lived there before Brutus. "The wording of my grandfather's lease suggests I have rights," Wanda insists. If you think Shanley is beginning to stretch metaphoric credibility, you're right. And he doesn't stop there. One further example: Frank agrees to help Wanda but is worried about upsetting Brutus's relatives who manufacture Frank's favorite (olive) oil. You can groan now.

As both author and director, Shanley has not been able to find a coherent tone for the play. Michelle Malavet's set is, appropriately enough, rendered in shades of gray. Mimi O'Donnell's costumes -- especially in the second act -- emphasize the satiric aspects of the production. A lot of the writing is incisive and funny, but Shanley's attempts to stylize the action and the scene transitions come across as forced.

In addition, the acting is uneven. As mentioned above, Deblinger is amazing, but Lozano doesn't fare as well. In the play's opening scene, she seems incredibly flat, and though subsequent scenes showcase her ability to play more than one dimension, she never seems completely comfortable in her part. McGarry and Puzzo also seem to struggle to make their broadly farcical roles believable.

Still, the main problem here is structural. By play's end, the dialogue has devolved into baldly polemical statements; each actor is nothing more than a mouthpiece for a political position, and there is no sense of character remaining. This may have been the playwright's intention, but it's a losing strategy.