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Friday, July 13, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 p.m.

Theater review
'Dirty Story': combative couplings in Intiman festival's opener

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW |

Intiman Theatre has just launched a new summer season with "Dirty Story," the 2003 satirical, politically skewed allegory by John Patrick Shanley.

Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, the show kicks off Intiman's new four-play summer festival that revives the Tony Award-honored company under new leadership after a financial crisis curtailed its 2011 season.

"Dirty Story" also inaugurates a performance venue: the Intiman Studio, a "black box" space behind the much-larger Intiman Playhouse, where the other fest shows are playing.

Opening with "Dirty Story" (a late-inning replacement for another work that Intiman couldn't secure the rights to) is a bold salvo. But the play itself, a hot-off-the-press allegory of Middle East strife when it debuted a decade ago, feels dated. It's a provocative but curious opener. Shanley is best known for his street-wise romances — such as the movie "Moonstruck" — and his morally and spiritually probing Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Doubt."

It's helpful to know that "Dirty Story" debuted as the U.S. was about to invade Iraq. Here, Shanley casts off the strictures of realism to mount a seriocomic, freewheeling attack on geopolitical intransigence.

There's something to offend those sympathetic to either Palestinians or Israelis here. But Shanley uses S&M eroticism and cartoonish absurdism to say, essentially, "a pox on both your houses," and plead, "Can't we all get along?"

Spoiler alert: "Dirty Story" gets its energy from a bifurcated premise.

In the first act (titled "Fiction"), an eager, aspiring novelist, Wanda (Carol Roscoe), seeks writing advice from a bitterly misanthropic author, Brutus (Shawn Law), who talks himself into meta-literary corners and decrees that "fiction is dead."

Yet this odd couple (both of whom claim to be Jewish) wind up together in Brutus' loft. And a bizarre seduction ensues via bondage, chain saw, and tied-to-the-railroad-track melodrama straight out of "The Perils of Pauline."

Though the scene stops short of sexual violation, be aware that it's intentionally harrowing and squirmworthy — with creepy villainy supplied by Law, and quivering terror from Roscoe.

But Shanley fakes you out, then flips over to the metaphorical lampoonery of Act 2 ("Non-Fiction") — in which Brutus is revealed as a self-destructive embodiment of Palestinian rage against Wanda's equally militant, implacable Israel.

Shown as a drawling arms merchant, America (Frank, played by Quinn Franzen), supplies guns while trying to broker peace. Frank resembles a recent U.S. president from Texas and there are grudges in his love/hate alliance with England (Lawrence, played by Allen Fitzpatrick).

There's much mock-polemical talk here, which can be tedious or funny. And with help from set designer Jennifer Zeyl, Curtis-Newton stages the bursts of action efficiently in a cramped space. Law and Roscoe adroitly handle roles that require left-field, split-second transformations.

But what's the upshot, after a battle royale of words and blows? The stalemate between West Bank and Israeli adversaries is akin to a dysfunctional romantic relationship — with both parties fiercely laying claim to the same Meatpacking District loft.

No one expects Shanley to solve what generations of political leaders have not. He's just illustrating, amplifying and restating a seemingly insolvable standoff — in ways that seesaw between the cleverly insightful and the blindingly obvious.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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