Right now there’s a freestanding toilet in a remote section of the third-floor stage at Studio Theatre. There’s also a lot of dirt on the floor - 5,800 pounds of it. But you quickly get inured to the soil’s stench, and your focus shifts to the potty. From the outset you can’t help but wonder if someone in the play "Dirt" will actually use it.
The answer is yes - though mercifully Holly Twyford only goes through the motions of trying to have a bowel movement. But the intent and the effect is the same: You won’t leave Dirt unscathed or unsoiled. Bryony Lavery’s play, now in a world premiere at Studio, has lots to say about lots of things, chiefly modern relationships, communication and chemical consumption, and the ease with which we at least try to avoid -- or discard - uncomfortable and messy people or things.
"Dirt"s ultimate message is a bit muddled, but there are clear lessons. Twyford’s Harper and her boyfriend Matt (Matthew Montelongo) have stopped truly communicating. The two don’t even fully engage each other during a prolonged simulated sex scene, which is one of the play’s most entertaining moments. The hunky Montelongo’s and the petite Twyford’s bodies are connected - but their minds are elsewhere, including with the audience. It’s a stunningly realized off-kilter pas de deux.
"Dirt"s two most alive characters are also its two most irrational, or at least most unbound by logic and reason: Guy (Ro Boddie), a former addict and now holistic healer; and Elle (a dazzling Natalia Payne), a struggling, impulsive actor. Guy and Elle communicate successfully - and as such, neither are as troubled as the others. And of course, they are both still standing by play’s end. That’s not true for Harper, who reveals her death at the top of the play. It’s not clear what exactly caused her to croak; the leading theories are inconclusive. The play suggests that better communication might have prevented Harper’s death - which is true, insofar as it goes. But something else remains unearthed, unsatisfactorily explained.
It turns out there’s just not enough digging in the dirt in "Dirt."
Dirt runs to Nov. 11 at Studio Theatre, 14th & P Streets NW. Tickets are $20. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.