He also has a sprightliness and an inborn cleverness that sometimes threaten to trip him up, causing him, seemingly, to lose sight of the impulses that moved him to write in the first place.
To some extent, that may be what happened with “Dirty Story,” the agile little comedy-drama that the Labyrinth Theater Company, of which the playwright is an active member, has opened at the Harold Clurman Theater on West 42nd Street’s Theater Row.
Shanley’s latest offering, which starts out as a kind of semi-surrealist jape, only to evolve into something more serious, even a slightly heavy-handed polemic, has just had its run extended through April 13.
Wanda (Florencia Lozano), a literature graduate student who describes herself as “a German-Jew,” has sent a copy of the manuscript of her unpublished novel to Brutus (David Deblinger), a successful author, self-described as “a Jew-German,” ostensibly seeking his approval, and, possibly, a boost toward the career she hopes to jump-start.
At the outset, “Dirty Story” appears to be a slightly ham-fisted romantic comedy getting off to a decidedly shaky start, with Wanda con fronting the writer in a decidedly stalker-like manner as he sits in a brick-lined public space playing a one-man game of chess again a nonexistent opponent.
As the first act jogs along, the scene changes to Brutus’ apartment, the same brick-lined area, only very slightly altered in this modest Laybrinth production, where this decidedly odd couple embarks on some awkward sexual role-playing, with Wanda donning a wig and pretending to be the heroine of the old silent movie serial, “The Perils of Pauline.”
With Brutus tying the girl to a ladder with clothesline, the ladder standing in for the railroad tracks to which the filmic Pauline of popular memory seemed endlessly tethered, playwright Shanley seems for a time to be parodying kinky sex of the variety suggested in the personal ads of shoddy newspapers.
Wanda’s final act-one line, “Call me Israel,” quite apart from being a kind of riff on the most famous words from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” suggests that Shanley has something entirely different on his mind and, as he pursues his goals in the play’s second half, the playwright spins a web so fragile, and so unlike what went before it, that it threatens to tear apart with the slightest tension.
That it never quite disintegrates is a tribute to the writer’s nimble work skills and to the stubbornly earnest efforts of the play’s four-actor cast.
The other pair, Frank (Chris McGarry), a cowboy hero coming to the rescue of the mock Pauline, meanwhile sells guns to a British-accented publican named Watson (Michael Puzzo).
Shanley, who appears to have his metaphors mixed a bit, seems to see Wanda standing in for Israel while Brutus represents the Palestinian cause. As for that lanky cowhand and his subservient English sidekick, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize cartoon versions of George Bush and Tony Blair.
As act two continues, memories of the play’s initial scenes slinter off and drift away like portions of a particularly unstable iceberg. “Dirty Story,” as directed by playwright Shanley, is salted through with little song fragments and parodistic bits of business which manage to deflect much of the potential ponderousness which frequently threatens to capsize the overall endeavor.
To cite just one example, Wanda makes her act two entrance slowly undulating down the stairway leading to Watson’s bar, moving to the music created for the film, “Exodus.” In passing it’s a funny, satisfying moment, and there are others like it.
Unfortunately, however, Shanley’s internal compass seems to become so wobbly, and so unreliable, that the events of act one show little relationship to what comes along later on.
Early in the play’s first half, the work’s least significant character, the Englishman first viewed as a nearly silent second solo chess player, holds up a sign reading “Fiction.”
Some of Shanley’s mental gymnastics are vaguely reminiscent of the loosely constructed, but nevertheless appealing, plays of the late William Saroyan.
In directing his own play, Shanley has employed, in addition to the theme from “Exodus,” music including the late Richard Harris’s famous recording of Jim Webb’s endearing but permanently puzzling song, “Macarthur Park.”
The number turns up at intermission and again, as the audience is leaving the theater at the end of “Dirty Story.” Familiar as it is, particularly to anyone who was around a couple of decades ago, “MacArthur Park,” and the smoky voice that made it so famous, now carry a new and eloquent measure of nostalgia, with Richard Harris gone from the scene.