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Mixing the comic and the profound in 'Dirt'

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

British playwright Bryony Lavery, whose witty "Dirt" is playing at the Studio Theatre, is an inspired and skilled writer. Her skill allows her to write about toxic cleaning fluids as convincingly as she writes about sex and French cuisine. Her access to inspiration allows her to write about death without sounding maudlin.

Under the careful, clean direction of David Muse, "Dirt" stars five extremely talented actors, who contribute equally to the production's authenticity. The brilliant Holly Twyford plays a high-spirited young woman, Harper, who has been dating Matt for three years. Twyford's engaging, magnetic persona allows her to be as fascinating in death as she is in life.

Matthew Montelongo plays Matt with a comic blend of brooding macho egotism and total obsession with time. Harper's mother, May (the gifted Carolyn Mignini) is a professor of quantum physics. Her quest to understand the ambiguous nature of the universe through science is diametrically opposed to her daughter's quest to understand the universe through an intellectual exploration of religion.

The main event of "Dirt" is a disastrous dinner Harper and Matt share, which ends in a major fight, no-holds-barred sex, then separation. Elle (Natalia Payne), an actress waiting for her big break, is the waitress at that dinner. Payne is entertaining as the self-absorbed young woman who delights in showing off her facility with accents and personalities.

Onstage
'Dirt'
Where: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW
When: Through Nov. 11
Info: $20; 202-332-3300; studiotheatre.org

Ro Boddie is taking as Elle's spiritual guide, Guy, a young man who has gone from destroying his body with every possible pollutant to being a healer who tries to help Elle with her chakras and her love-life.

The main theme in "Dirt" is that filth is all around us, no matter how desperately we try to keep ourselves and our surroundings clean. Dirt is outdoors, in our dwellings, our bodies, our subconscious thoughts and our words.

Lavery's language is unique. Her characters often talk about themselves in the third person. Lavery's ability to address grime in so many inventive and funny ways makes the play percolate on a variety of levels at the same time. Particularly noteworthy is Harper's post-death monologue, when she questions the unsettling details of not being alive. The speech is studded with incisive observations on the nature of mortality.

Shakespeare relied on poetry when he wrote of death. In the same way, Lavery employs her personal poetry to discuss hell, purgatory and the possibility of an afterlife, using Harper as a witness not only to the excitement of life but also to the profound mystery of death.

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