All Washed Up
Dirty Laundry could use a good scrubbing
Every so often, you find yourself unavoidably in the company of unsavory characters. Whether it's a significant other's gangster cousin whom you have to talk to at family parties, the creepy guy who fixes your car and hates Jewish people, or your freshman-year college roommates, sometimes you just have to sit there and pretend like you're relating with perfectly awful people merely to make it through a couple of hours unscathed.
Watching Brian Kojac's production of Dan Acre's Dirty Laundry at STAGEStheatre feels kind of like that.
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Billed as a comedy, Dirty Laundry feels like a cautionary tale, something that might be shown to delinquent youths to scare them straight. The play centers on four middle-aged alcoholics who live together in an Indianapolis flop house. Filling their days mainly with liquor and tall tales, the men are well beyond their prime (if they ever had one). One day, they are surprised by the arrival of Kenny, the ne'er-do-well nephew of Roy, the alpha male of the group. Kenny has escaped from a youth home and is hoping to hide out from the authorities at his uncle's house. Roy and his friends discover that the government will give them $700 per month to care for Kenny, and they figure it's a pretty good scam. Only problem is, Roy and co. have to keep Kenny on the straight and narrow, which proves challenging as they seem to have absolutely no parenting skills whatsoever. That's pretty much it for the plot, which leans more toward a naturalist's study of the North American Male Dirtbag than a cohesive, engaging story.
There are very few characters with whom to empathize. The men relate to one another with the kind of casual sexism, racism and homophobia that is, even in the 21st century, still prevalent and accepted in some circles. The three women in the play are subject to the worst kind of objectification, so much so that it's a relief when they exit the stage. While the way in which these men speak is certainly effective in establishing their characters, this kind of dialogue pushes the play over the line from an insightful examination of the lifestyles of the willfully drunk and impoverished to a kind of audience endurance test. How long can we hear the empty strings of exaggerated sex stories and tales of braggadocio before we stop caring about the characters, as they seem to have stopped caring about themselves? Smith, the eldest and the only one with any kind of social conscience, is such a breath of fresh air that I was tempted to run onstage and hug him every time he spoke—but for most of the play, he's given little to do but act as a foil to the other men's overwhelming bluster. When he finally has his big scene, it feels emotionally slight, as though Acre was trying to make a statement about the irresponsibility of alcoholism but couldn't quite believe it himself.
It's a testament to the play's creative team that all this feels stomach-turningly real. Roy's home is appropriately disgusting, he and his friends make convincing drunks, and Acre's script contains quite a few legitimate laughs. Unfortunately, the heart of Dirty Laundry hinges on the notion that Kenny and Roy can somehow redeem each other, but not once is the audience convinced this can happen. Ultimately, Acre has a good ear for the dialogue of the down-and-out, but it's asking a lot from an audience to spend two hours with these men.
Dirty Laundry at STAGEStheater, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Aug. 16. $15-$18.