When Jonathan Northover took over Live Theatre Workshop's edgy late-night Etcetera series last year, one play he most wanted to direct was Dirty Story, a savage comedy about ... well, more on that in a moment. What Northover didn't realize is that he'd not only direct but also star in the production, even though, technically, he's all wrong for the part.
John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story starts off as a play about a man and a woman in New York who engage in a deep literary conversation and quickly get involved in a volatile relationship. At one point, the woman pulls a gun on the man and declares, "Call me Israel." Yes, she's Israel; he's Palestine, and before long, a big-talking Texan (the United States) gets into the middle of the situation.
"This is very tech heavy, and it's complex," Northover says. "I'm drawn to things that are horribly difficult. And I was starting to get really fussy about the casting." So he cast himself as Brutus, the Palestine figure. "Even though I'm this thin Englishman, about as un-Palestinian as can be," he admits. "But with a few costume tricks and silly accents, we can get away with it."
Actually, the decision wasn't so easy for Northover. First, he got Shanley's blessing. "Any actor can play the role of Brutus," Shanley assured him. "Go for it. Good luck." Then he had to get a co-director, because he doesn't believe an actor should try to direct himself. Enter Carolyn Marbry.
"She really has her finger on the political pulse of this play," says Northover. "The play is a big slap-me-in-the-face metaphor, so we have to try as much as we can not to let the metaphor turn into a cartoon, and breathe life into the characters. It's actually so well-written that I almost think the metaphor can take care of itself.
"Meanwhile, we've got to make sure the audience has time to absorb these complex, literary ideas Shanley will inject into a scene. Some of his sentences you could write a whole play about. It's full of brilliantly written banter, and beyond that, if you do this play 18 times, you're still finding new things in it. This guy has a planet brain.
"He wrote this in 2003, so it's still relevant today. It got good reviews in New York, but it hasn't been produced in very many other places. It's a well-written play that's also quite funny, and very dark. I'm thinking of putting a warning sign in the lobby: 'This play contains anal probing.'"