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The Dirty Talk

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

You can't avoid the aroma of testosterone as you enter Center Stage for The Dirty Talk: A deer head mounted on the wall, a king-sized bed draped in a flannel comforter, a dozen cardboard boxes acting as the room's primary furniture... Yes, there can be no doubt that a Man (yes, with a capital M) lives here, and that he'll probably be at the center of Michael Puzzo's provocatively titled play. But it soon seems clear that behind the dirty man who's calling this bachelor's paradise his home there's a housekeeper just lying in wait.

Once we meet Mitch, who's foul-tempered, foul-mouthed, and perpetually angry, it's hard not to notice how squeaky-clean he is. Even if his life is in flux, his thoughts and emotions are remarkably ordered - and despite the impressive number of four-letter words with which he peppers his vocabulary, he's astonishingly erudite when he chooses to be. If this is really a Man, he's certainly one who could exist only in the 21st century, and then almost exclusively in the sheltered habitats of theaters housing plays about the emasculating effects of the gender wars.

Normally, you'd want to pair up a thoroughly rugged guy with someone who can demonstrate the fallacies and misjudgments of his male-focused existence - say, for the sake of argument, a bisexual lonely-heart he picked up on the Internet thinking he was actually a gorgeous woman. Then, trap them both in the boxing ring of a lumberjack-bachelor's getaway pad, and watch sparks (and probably furnishings) fly before they come to the conclusion that the other actually has something to say worth hearing.

So goes The Dirty Talk, with Mitch (Sidney Williams) and Lino (Kevin Cristaldi) facing off for 75 minutes of fierce, frequently funny conflict that nonetheless never progresses to spiritually or sexually enlightening because of Mitch's own latent self-awareness. It takes so little for him to spill his guts about his ex-wife and begin to understand how what he wanted from her really might just have been what he wanted for himself, that we question far too easily how his marriage could have broken up in the first place. Lino remains so tight-lipped about his personal history, ceding most of his own pain and attention to Mitch, that he becomes a far more involving and believable enigma we want to provide more balance: If Mitch presents Man Who Was Taught Not to Love, Lino could show us Man Who Loves Everyone.

Even lacking these additional colors and complexities, the two characters, and the two actors playing them, are beautifully matched. The stocky Williams and the lean, nervous Cristaldi create two men convincingly on the edge, who need to find in each other what they can't get from others. And, at least as directed by Padraic Lillis, the unspoken relationship that unfolds between them is far more interesting than most of the specifics of chat-room sex, deer hunting, and anguished, rain-drenched breakups they spend so much time discussing: It's easy to picture this play as a pilot for a present-day Odd Couple knock-off, where the actors are the same but all the details are different before the first episode airs.

The rapport between the actors and the characters has only deepened since I first saw The Dirty Talk at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. There, the play felt like little more than an angry trifle that entertained in the moment but was determined to vanish from thought immediately after. Cristaldi and Williams give it considerably more emotional weight now than they did then, and allow it to be as much a parable about male friendship as a raunchy comedy about perceived sexual and emotional mores in contemporary adult men. The play benefits from that extra level.

Ultimately, though, it still seems harsh and forced, with Puzzo going to unnecessary lengths to prove points that the recent movement toward metrosexuality - and the even more recent movement away from it again - have already drilled into our collective consciousness. The events and emotions detailed here can no longer shock because modern men have already been through the gauntlet, and either survived or been defeated - Mitch, from all evidence, falls firmly in the latter category and Lino into the former. If The Dirty Talk is intended as a call to arms for the rest of us, it's one that's arrived at least five years too late.

The Dirty Talk
Through February 4
Center Stage, 48 West 21st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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