When I first reviewed Joe Marshall's Dirty Secrets three years ago, I was wowed by the smart story but lamented the second-rate acting of that particular production. Little has changed on either front with this show, which Alternative Theater Company has remounted at On the Spot playhouse, the scene of the original crime. This time out, however, Marshall has revamped the play's once-dimwitted ending, and the new windup coupled with the compelling strokes that precede it makes this gender-bent thriller a worthy contender.
It's all about Tom, who shows up at the home of Nick and Shane, a gay couple who live in Manhattan. Tom is depressed because he's just discovered that his lover of eight years has had sex with another man. He doesn't tell Nick that the other man is Shane. It turns out that Tom has come to torture Shane, to seek retribution for his messed-up romance. It's the ways in which Tom carries out his revenge first demanding sex with Shane, later seducing Nick that move the play along. He has a worthy opponent in the snaky Shane, who trumps Tom's attempts at blackmail, but can't keep up with his nasty houseguest's vile temper.
In its earlier version, Dirty Secrets was more clearly seriocomic; the rewrite goes for fewer laughs while still poking fun at brainless gay stereotypes. From the opening scene, you know you're watching a play about homosexuals, because one of them is filing his nails and making bitchy comments, and because the walls of the apartment set are covered with photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Instead of boring us with platitudes about the evils of pigeonholing people, Marshall skewers stereotypes by having his characters, all of them gay, spout earnest lines like, "You don't act gay you're masculine!"
Marshall's script is bursting with red herrings: As soon as we've named our hero, he reveals himself as a scoundrel, and we're back to square one, waiting for one of these tormented lovers to turn up a winner. Every one of these men is a sick ticket, and just once I'd like to see any of them fully realized by a talented actor. Walt Pedano gives the closest thing to a complete performance as Tom, the vengeful villain wearing a good-guy mask. Pedano keeps pace with Tom's manic mood swings, which spin quickly from steamy pillow talk to brutal tantrums. He's trading languid insults with another actor one moment; in the next, has the poor fellow in a headlock and is bellowing death threats that shake the tiny theater's ceiling panels. Pedano is less successful with Tom's quieter moments, appearing uncomfortable in scenes where he's asked to weep or display tenderness.
Matthew Harris as Shane and Chad Farrell as Nick give more tentative performances, often speaking so quietly that their lines are lost entirely. Director Jay Russett too often plunks these guys onto furniture and leaves them there, muttering and holding their heads in their hands, and our attention is drawn away from them by Pedano's larger and sometimes more vibrant performance.
The original production of Dirty Secrets ended with a baffling speech, spoken directly to the audience, about the importance of "the soul" and the difference between love and sex. Marshall tested four different endings before settling on the big finish he uses here, and this new one adds a final, gratifying twist to an already compelling if mostly underacted thriller.
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