by Richard Sanford
Red Herring continues their ambitious season with the world premiere of Creighton James’ dark comedy Dirt in a visceral, frenetic mounting directed by Amanda Phillips.
Dirt recasts Sam Shepard’s working-class surrealism as a cartoonish farce. Jimmy (Benjamin Turner) returns to his hometown in the heart of coal country Pennsylvania for the first time in seven years. He and his brother Rusty (Samuel Patridge), who stayed and still works in the mine, are on a mission to exhume the remains of their father before the bulldozers of eminent domain churn up all that ground.
Throughout Dirt, James uses repetition as a substitute for comedy more than as a comedic technique. The brothers say “Say that again?” (or variations) as a provocation so often, its intent gets lost and breeds exhaustion. Hand-in-hand with that flaw, the play follows Chekov’s law off of a cliff; it draws specific attention to every element James will deploy, and then uses that trope or image in exactly the way the audience first thinks. That telegraphing and belaboring makes the hour-forty-five-minute (with one intermission) running time feel longer than it is.
Amanda Phillips’ production makes the most of the overstuffed and under-cooked play. She understands the square of land played by Steve Emerson’s creepy and evocative set as a poison, a trap, and a gladiatorial arena, and she effectively uses the foreground and background to keep the audience’s interest. She, with fight choreographer Sarah Vargo, uses the two actors’ keen sense of physicality to make dazzling sequences out of tossed-off sight gags and vice versa, making the most use possible out of a thrown moonshine jug.
Patridge and Turner stalk each other and move like brothers, their mannerisms echo and imply a past and draw lines around how they’ve evolved in one another’s absence. Turner’s restlessness and Patridge’s resentment have some rich shading and sing in complicated harmonies. They get riotous fun out of the hilarious set pieces and gleeful gross-outs. They also draw out the hints at something deeper seeded throughout Dirt by Creighton James.
Dirt isn’t a great play, but it’s a strong reminder of Red Herring’s tradition of nurturing new work. A brilliant showcase for these two actors and lively, physical direction, make this a chance worth taking but not a satisfying evening at the theatre.
Dirt runs through March 3 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, please visit redherring.info.