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You notice the smell first. Nearly six thousand pounds of soil rest on the stage, so the room smells more like a farmhouse than a theater. The smell fades after a few minutes, which is precisely what playwright Bryony Lavery wants us thinking about. Her challenging new play, Dirt, is all about the tension between who we are and what we are. She creates complex situations, using meta-dialogue and the limits of the stage to create a space beyond death. It’s a delicate balance, one that nearly collapses, but is saved in its more straightforward second act.

When Harper (Holly Twyford) steps on stage, she tells us she’s dead. She’s coy about the circumstances of her death, so she recreates the last day of her life. She misses a call from her mother May (Carolyn Mignini), a lecturer who specializes in quantum mechanics. The main event is dinner between Harper and Matt (Matthew Montelongo), her longtime boyfriend. He’s furious when she’s twenty-two minutes late, and the meal becomes a battle of passive aggression. Their waitress Elle (Natalia Payne) notices the awkwardness, but she’s too swept up in her own problems to care. The evening unfolds as disastrously as it could: Harper dies after Matt leaves her apartment, and without anyone knowing her status, she’s just like Schrödinger’s cat. As it turns out, May’s earlier quantum mechanics lecture is necessary.

Harper is not the only character who comments on her life as she lives it. All of Lavery’s characters soliloquize, and their real-time insight is where the play finds its substance.  Elle’s an actress, for example, and she shows off her prowess as she serves Matt and Harper. She dances, changes accents, and modulates the timbre of her voice. Matt talks about his relationship with clipped anger, but he’s addressing the audience, not Harper. His only moment of connection is with Elle; they have a strange conversation while they smoke in an alley, one that culminates in a rushed kiss. Sill, the first act is off-putting: it’s more like a series of monologues, so there is hardly any chance to development chemistry. Lavery’s shows us how we hardly ever communicate when we speak. Even a lengthy sex scene, one that earns its laughs, offers little relief from our twisted head space.

The second act follows the aftermath of Harper’s death. There are the expected low-points, but strangely enough, the play riffs on a “Law and Order” style procedural. Lavery slowly reconstructs the details of her demise, culminating in an interview where one character restores order by summarizing what, precisely, happened to her body. Since Lavery also includes moments of grief – Harper dies in a chair, and her mother cannot bear to look at it – the explanation is cathartic for Matt and the audience. Harper is still “present” during the second act, just in a spectral way. She empathizes with her family, and her purpose is a modern riff on Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town.” The fifth character, Guy (Ro Boddie), is a massage therapist who also serves as Elle’s sounding board. She spirals into despair, and he patiently explains what, even in death, Harper barely understands.

Under the direction of David Muse, Dirt is spare and evocative. Props drop from the ceiling, and Lavery’s text imbues props with uncommon significance. The choice is having soil line the floor is brilliant, and not just because of the small. Harper starts to get dirty, literally, and dirt-caked body is reminder of her corporeal decay. In the denouement, Harper watches as Guy uses the soil to present an elegant metaphor for the afterlife. The performances match the austere production. None of the actors have an opportunity to develop chemistry – Lavery breaks the fourth wall too much for that – yet they’re each given moments of comedy and emotional resonance. But of all the performers, Payne is the stand-out since she has so many opportunities to show off her (considerable) acting chops. Her performance runs the gamut of tone and style, all while preserving a core of genuine vulnerability.

In his recent special, comedian Rob Delaney talks about how he wants to eat his child. He insists he means it literally, but his grotesque hyperbole is a (hilarious) way to show how our desires interact with our emotions. Like Delaney’s love for his son, May’s feelings about Harper push her body into uncomfortable, strange places. Throughout Dirt, Lavery’s characters grapple with big questions as their bodies betray them. Through these wounded characters, we can see the strange connection between our bodies and our souls.

Dirt is at The Studio Theatre until November 11th. Buy tickets here!

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