Dirty Pictures – A Sharper Image
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
I don’t know if I’ve ever truly had a crush on a set before, but there’s a first time for everything. D. W. Gregory’s Dirty Pictures, currently up at Baltimore Theater Project (Rapid Lemon Productions) boasts one of the most well done I have ever seen on the small stage. That thing is perfect, and major, MAJOR hat tip to set designer S. Lee Lewis, and whoever else helped to design, build, and bring it to life. I come from a small beach town and that set is every dive I’ve ever hung around, trying to look older, every shitty restaurant I ever sighed in while wiping up tables, knowing it was a losing battle. All of the details are just so good. Check out the “office” with that terrible, wobbly desk piled with crap, the chipped, cheap, lacquered bar stools, that one door covered in forgotten stickers that never fucking closes. The set has history, it has character. It reads.
Onto that glorious stage stumbles our four hapless late-eighties mountain dwellers: Judy (Allison Sarah Burrell), the hard-boiled bartender, Chet (Matthew Lindsay Payne) the local artiste, Bonnie (Chara Bauer) the hottest girl in town, and Dan (Terrance Fleming) the drunk bar owner who may or may not have religion. The plot revolves around the titular dirty pictures, 21 saucy snaps taken in a transaction between Chet and Bonnie, who has dreams of being a Playboy bunny. Revelations start to swirl, including Judy’s major crush on Dan and a particularly gross rumor about Chet. I wish that the rest of this production had come together as well as that set, because if it had, it would have been one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, there are major problems with cohesion here, big cracks across the center that widen as things go on.
I think it starts with Gregory’s script. This is a world premiere, and feels like it needs much sharper editing. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to walk away with, here, because the central concept is so muddy. The show wants to subvert our expectations about these characters, wants us to be surprised by their inner landscapes, but the sub-plots are so rambling and the tone so uneven that this driver turns out to be mostly inert. What exactly is being subverted here? The strongest answer seems to be that Judy has a visible disability (she walks with assistance from a cane) but this isn’t focused on to any substantial level, which seems real and right. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to date with any sort of physical difference, but Judy’s main issue finding love appears to be her attitude, not her leg. It doesn’t seem like much of a subversion to suggest that a gorgeous woman is desirable, and indeed, the men are in love (or at least lust) with her at various points in the play.
Director Lance Bankerd also seems unsure about what the message is, and this uncertainty doesn’t help. He directs broadly, which brings the characters closer to cartoons than people. I’ve never seen a grown woman literally stomp her foot in a tantrum before, or anyone pronounce the word “invitation” as “in-VIAY-tay-shun”. Bankerd wants to play up the screwball comedy, but the pace is too slow, and what should be quick as lightening drags, particularly a slow motion bar fight near the end where an actor attempts to throw…napkins. These are types, not people, and relationships that should feel worn in, grooved, habitual, don’t, because we don’t really get to know them. Compounding the issue are faintly retro ideas involving some serious male gaze (Chet literally looks through a camera at Judy, “capturing” her, and these photos scroll across a projection screen at the front of the stage), and a lack of belivability in the relationship between the two women – unless I missed something big, I don’t think this show passes the third part of the Bechdel test.
This being said, there are some nice moments. Burrell is especially effective, and her sourpuss exterior feels earned. Fleming is most successful in bringing the seventies sitcom vibe to the fore, and has a grand time invoking it, particularly in his first, swaggering, Jim Beam-fueled appearance. Bauer’s character is shallow as a puddle, and some of the late-stage suggestion that still waters run deep comes off silly (especially an odd monologue about feeling trapped behind glass, which I think is supposed to be profound?) but she has the chops. Her face and body language right after Dan says, “You’re beautiful, baby,” is heartbreaking, and her subsequent door slamming exit is great. Payne overdraws Chet quite a bit, but he can be funny (I liked his head popping in and out of a service door like the gatekeeper at the Emerald City) and the convoluted scheming is pulled off well.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Dirty Pictures, despite everyone’s fine intentions, doesn’t gel. A lack of clarity in the script translates to the direction, which goes larger-than-life when it should feel down to earth, and early pacing issues never quite resolve. Fucking great set, though.
SECOND OPINION? https://bitrsisters.com/2018/10/18/dirty-pictures/