Robert Thompson & Julie Streble in Dirty Sexy Derby Play.
Dirty, Sexy, Derby Play
By Brian Walker
Directed by Darren McGee
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Louisville audiences love perennial holiday shows: Dracula at Halloween, A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker at Christmas, Dirty, Sexy, Derby Play at Derby time…
This is the third production of Brian Walker’s play in as many years, and the second in a row for Louisville Repertory Company. I don’t know if the company seeks to establish it as a recurring late-April mainstay, but DSDP certainly doesn’t fit the standard model for a holiday show. There is no sentimentality, and little cultural tradition, both of which might reasonably be expected in a play set on Kentucky Derby Day in Louisville. There is plenty of drinking, smoking, arguing, talking about sex, and one simulated sex act at the top of the play.
The setting is a “key party” on Derby Day 1974, which is one month after the famous April 3 tornado. Four couples gather to party and potentially exchange partners for the evening based on a random selection of the men’s keys. The “key party” is a fabled concept that encapsulates the bourgeois fantasies and hedonistic desires of middle-class American society at a particular place and time. The playwright also uses the key image metaphorically as a reference to the expression of long repressed and deeply corrosive emotions. Almost every character seems to be holding onto secrets that are demanding to be heard, whatever the cost.
DSDP is a popular earlier work from Mr. Walker, and it reeks of youthful excess and a fascination with sexuality and personal revelation that perhaps reflects some of the playwright’s own artistic coming-of-age. Which is not meant to imply that the piece is autobiographical, but this is clearly territory the playwright knows well.
The performances in this latest production are a mixed bag. I would imagine finding the right balance and tone in this piece is one of the greatest challenges, because the outrageousness makes it very easy to jump the rails into excess. I have seen Robert Thompson in WhoDunnit Murder Mystery shows where he was often cast as highly civilized, contained characters with a British accent, so it was nice to see him cut loose as Carl, and play the raunchiness with just enough relish tempered with discipline. Julie Streble did well as his wife, Vanessa, who really drives the action with purpose and an…agenda. There was authority and chemistry here as the hosts of the party. Lenae McKee Price and Michael Smith Jr. as Victor and Francine also did nice work, and Ms. Price continues a growing tradition of actors being cast as Vanessa and then Francine in successive productions. Her Francine is appropriately selfish and unlikeable, so her work seems right on target, because this is a play with precious few truly appealing characters. One of the few is her husband Victor, a closeted homosexual stranded in a loveless marriage, and Mr. Price makes his transition away from milquetoast mediocrity compelling.
Speaking of authority, Gerry Rose proves once again what an adroit actor he can be as Tim, Carl’s fellow schoolteacher and possessor of a highly overactive libido. The crassness of the character’s explanation of his masturbatory habits is leavened by the actor’s focused energy tempered by discipline. His worthy partner is Kelsey Thompson as Tim’s wife, Lana. Easily the most repressed of the women in the play, the cliché is exploded by an unabashed embrace of her very particular brand of voyeurism, expressed in carefully studied physicality in the performance. Yet it must also be said that many of Ms. Thompson’s finer moments are in small asides in which she steals scenes with minimal effort.
Their work illustrates the essential importance of establishing a solid foundation for character when playing such outrageous behavior. The risk is clearly displayed here in the presentation of Carl’s cousin Dennis, and his youthful bride Theresa. The unsophisticated couple, written as white trash rednecks, is clearly out of their element in the middle-class milieu of the play, and they are the easiest to overplay. Dan Shoemaker allows Dennis to slip into overripe caricature, playing for the easy laughs and missing much of the nuance. Ms. Reibel played Theresa in last year’s production, and delivers the same irrepressible verve, but without the previous discipline that afforded her the pathos necessary to bring dramatic equilibrium to the character. Theresa’s triumphant self-empowerment remains intact as the climax of the action, but it lacks the full resonance available in the script.
The play includes a party game of profane prank calls in which the various victims are portrayed with a nice virtuosity (and a little bit of skin) by Jen Starr. It is an example of the juvenile caliber of the party and the mean-spiritedness that might threaten the effectiveness of the play in other hands, but Mr. Walker has given us a ribald satire of middle-class mores in the wake of the sexual revolution overstuffed with broad humor. It continues, in this fourth iteration, to draw a robust response from audiences. As perennial holiday favorites go, it so far has the advantage of boasting fresh productions each time, with mostly new faces in the cast, but I cannot help but wish that, if Brian Walker’s work is to be highlighted, that other, less notorious plays might be revived so that we are better able to explore the range of his writing.
Dirty, Sexy, Derby Play
April 16, 17, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26 @ 8:00pm
Tickets $18.00 ($13.00 on Industry Night – April 20)
Louisville Repertory Company
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]