Plays about pornography have much the same problem as plays about professional sports. You can stage plenty of scenes of pregame conversation, locker-room tactics, front-office deal-making and postgame post-mortems, but you're stymied when it comes to showing the game itself, even though that's the core of the action.
Actually, Andrew Hinderaker, the author of the new play "Dirty" at the Gift Theatre in Jefferson Park, has a problem beyond that faced by, say, such recent Broadway plays as "Magic/Bird" and "Lombardi." The moment you get even close to staging pornography, and this drama includes very mildly erotic promotional videos, your audience finds itself pulled out of the fictional world and into the world of the actors, for whom one starts to worry, especially when you are sharing a very small room. That's not to say a serious play about the ethics, or lack thereof, of the porn business is impossible to stage; it's just very difficult to pull off.
Which brings us back to "Dirty," which does not fully succeed. It's not that Hinderaker lacks talent — actually, he's a hugely exciting, risk-taking, idea-loving young writer whose stimulating work and palpable promise demand attention. Hinderaker's dangerously high-concept plays (and this is the fourth I have reviewed) all tend to live or die based on how well his big idea of that particular script works. You have to admire his guts — none of his plays is dull, all of them have fire — but I also would love to see Hinderaker, just once, be less conceptually dependent and more able to write about life as it is lived. For few can write like him.
In this case, the big idea is that Matt, a turnaround-business guy (played by Michael Patrick Thornton) comes to hate his job acquiring struggling companies and laying off workers and, further, it does not sit well with his progressive, pregnant wife, Katie (Hillary Clemens).
Since Matt and Katie actually enjoy watching porn together (a sexy intimacy that this particular pair of actors beautifully evoke under Jonathan Berry's direction), but dislike its wallowing in the seedy world of ever-younger performers with fake body parts, Matt comes up with the idea for a website that will be, he says, the "Whole Foods of pornography" — an organic, liberal-friendly, politically correct operation that turns its customers on, even as it raises money for fighting breast cancer or human trafficking. And because people happily pay more to avoid guilt, the profit margins will be hefty.
"We will be," the entrepreneur says, "the only porn site with a foundation."
You can buy some of that — although the conceit that nobody else has thought of this, or is doing this already, is tough to accept, given all the sex-positive this that and the other out there, as is the conceit that so many people would find their way to such a site in all the pornographic clutter.
But as this three-act play winds on, the contrivances start to overwhelm the credible. As you might guess, Hinderaker is interested in whether the entrepreneurs can stick to their morals, or whether the sleaziness of their objectifying business will inherently suck them into the gutter.
The compromises start right away: Matt's former boss, the mercurial Terry (Paul D'Addario) comes on as an investor focused primarily on the bottom line. But once a potential progressive-friendly performer named Mikala (Mouzam Makkar) shows up, you start questioning whether such an intelligent, progressive woman would really make porn movies. Even if you can get past that, a subsequent plot line involving the temptation to exploit her 15-year-old sister (played by Atra Asdou), which nobody seems to acknowledge would likely land you in jail, takes things too far. Even though Katie wants to raise money for her causes, you just can't believe she'd be in the building.
And thus as you watch the well-acted play, which is directed with both intimacy and pizazz by Berry, not to mention filled with Hinderaker's sparking, smart dialogue, you start wishing that the world was somehow more tightly focused, or better protected, allowing us to enjoy the skills of the writer without the distractions of a business that, for all its popularity, is no friend of the theater.
When: Through Nov. 18
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$30 at 773-283-7071 or thegifttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye