Beginner's Lack

I am plagued by amateur playwrights. This season, there were twice as many apprentice authors produced on local stages as the season before. Every year, another theater troupe adds a "new works" festival to its schedule, featuring works by anyone who can clutch a pen or deliver a French scene.

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the playwriting action: Last week, the doorman in my building asked me to read a script he'd written.

Normally, I would have demurred. But the night before, I'd seen a new play that had truly taken me by surprise. Although the piece--Joe Marshall's Dirty Secrets--seemed to me to be half-finished, the half that was there was pretty darn interesting. If Marshall--who only last week was a massage therapist but is now a playwright--could write a play, maybe my doorman could, too.

Dirty Secrets is a one-off production by the long-dormant Alternative Theatre Company, a troupe founded by Marshall in the early Nineties. The company presented a single full season, then vanished after its principals parted company. For the troupe's return, Marshall has penned a dramedy about a fellow who decides to torture the man who busted up his eight-year romance: Tom is a bisexual who discovers his male lover in bed with his best friend Nick's boyfriend, Shane. Tom moves in with Nick and Shane, and threatens to reveal Shane's indiscretion to Nick unless Shane sleeps with Tom.

Marshall has fashioned a wicked thriller out of this creaky triangle. There are just enough smart plot twists to keep the slim story going, and a near-perfect blend of comedy and drama that continually catches its audience off guard. Dirty Secrets is lousy with red herrings, so that we're never certain who's running this smutty game: Does Tom really want revenge on Shane, or is this just a ploy to get the kid into bed? Or is he really after Nick?

The story is marred by a truly awful wind-up that I'm betting the playwright will excise before mounting a second production. While the first act is a tightly wound, nearly flawless hour of storytelling, things deteriorate in the second half of the second act, when the nature of Tom's game is revealed. In the show's final minutes, Tom turns to the audience and brays a self-conscious, stomach-churning speech about the importance of "the soul" and the difference between love and sex. There's no precedent for this broken-down fourth wall; the effect is jarring and the monologue really quite terrible.

There are other flaws as well. Marshall's script is chock-a-block with bad dialogue. Perhaps there are people who say things like, "You're so cute, you make me sick," but they should never exist on a theater stage. While some of the worst lines are mere flab, others ("I just really need to be with someone tonight--someone I can trust") are downright embarrassing.

Still, Marshall is a better writer than he is an actor. He's cast himself as Tom, and underplays the role so completely that he's often inaudible. As Shane, John Mabey's fey line readings too often blur the script's hard-drawn line between comedy and drama. Only John Haubner is sufficient as Nick, the good-guy gay who wants his old life back. Probably director Matthew Cary was too preoccupied trying to make something of the script's flaccid finale to concentrate on guiding his actors to better performances.

I left the theater wanting to see a production of this show played by more competent actors, with an ending that didn't make my head hurt. But what I did see impressed me enough to hope that Marshall won't forsake playwriting.

Despite its flaws, the slick story at the heart of Dirty Secrets suggests that its author has some real talent. He'd do well, in a town bursting with companies willing to produce first-time playwrights, to consider quitting his day job.

Dirty Secrets continues through Sunday, June 27, at On the Spot Theater, 4700 North Central.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela