In the Play Dirty, a Couple Tries to Create a Progressive Porn Company (GO!)

Max Lesser and Anna Konkle in Dirty
Max Lesser and Anna Konkle in Dirty
Photo by Erica Brown

In its rather earnest way, Andrew Hinderaker's Dirty calls into question how the word "obscene" often applies to pornography but not to, say, mergers and acquisitions. In fact, the play strongly implies that sex is a kind of merger and acquisition, so why not profit from it?

To be clear, Dirty, presented by the Slaughterhouse Theatre Company at the Zephyr Theatre, is a morality play about capitalism, not a blanket endorsement of it. It's a bit like Death of a Salesman, but with snappier dialogue and a titillating backdrop.

In the play's opening, our protagonist, Matt (Max Lesser), pleads directly to us that we shouldn't despise him. It's a bit hard not to despise such a sleek-coated snake. With Lesser's hoarse voice, the character is a gentle parody of a used-car salesman. While Willy Loman couldn't sell a heating system to an Eskimo (he was trying to flog his wares during the Great Depression), Matt's problem is quite different.

He can sell just fine — his specialty is predatory loans to companies operating on the brink of extinction. Matt's conundrum is ethical: He has a hard time closing a deal that he knows will put out of work the entire workforce of one of two companies that he's merging.

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To be more specific, his problem is with his boss, Terry (Lea Coco), who is the embodiment of evil and a marvelous character, in Coco's demonically funny performance, for exactly that reason. Terry doesn't wilt from hypocritical mercy. He possesses a blend of wit and abhorrent principles, and the eloquence with which he defends them is a page out of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, as is Matt and Terry's duet of overlapping, unfinished sentences — through which we're compelled to lean forward in order to infer the characters' purposes and convictions.

Inevitably, Matt snaps, and quits on the spot. It's a Quixotic moment, since Matt has a newly pregnant wife, Katie (Anna Konkle), waiting at home. Matt's purpose in life, and in the play, is to persuade her, and us, that he can create a start-up enterprise that will keep his family solvent. His "brilliant" idea is a porn company catering to progressives, which is a difficult pitch to his gender-studies-scholar wife. However, they both have a bit of a porn addiction, so it's not entirely out of the question.

Their guiding principles will be sex not smut, eroticism not degradation and no performers under the age of 25 (that's Katie's demand); also, that sex depicted in their erotic films will be a celebration of healthy unions, not of power and ownership. Matt has run the numbers and believes there is a market for "liberal porn."

Even in Act 1, during which Katie is skeptical and every potential investor on Matt's contacts list blows him off, the dramatic propulsion of trying to reel in seed money grows thin — not just because the humor of Matt's failed pitches wears out but because the discussion is entirely of sexual principles.

A comedy of ideas about smut, such as this, cannot live on talk alone. Hinderaker's conundrum is that if he puts the real deal onstage, he's just plundered his delicate ideas about capitalism and his satire of the progressive ethos in an unwaveringly savage world.

What his play does accomplish, however, is making a connection between corporate capitalism and the power imbalances that make both banking and pornography the most profitable industries of our age, much in the way that George Bernard Shaw equated the institution of marriage with prostitution.

Hinderaker's other achievement is his deft dramatic inquiry into the essences of sexuality, which have had feminist scholars arguing for decades. Is pornography just an emblem of dominance and subjugation? Are people who perform in porn, usually of their own free will, slaves to the culture's larger forces of oppression? Is it more enlightened to click tongues in disparagement of violent porn but to protect it under the rubric of free speech? Is porn a liberating fantasy, untethered from actual behavior, for both men and women? (In Japan, violent porn is far more prevalent than in the United States, which is perhaps a reason why the stats on rape and sexual assault are substantially lower, Wendy McElroy argues in A Feminist Defense of Pornography.)

Dirty turns schematic when the introduction of a Cambodian-Mexican bombshell actress (Zuleyka Silver) and her kid sister (Sumiko Braun) introduce human trafficking into the mix — along with shark porn producer Jacob Drake Jr. (Rob Belushi), conniving to drive Matt's enterprise, and his marriage, into the ground.

The play boasts the kind of hypnotizing ensemble and pristine performances, under Shannon Cochran's direction, that have one rooting for the play not to collapse. It collapses, nonetheless, even with its many virtues — virtues so abundant and provocative, the production is worth a look regardless.

DIRTY | By Andrew Hinderaker | Presented by Slaughterhouse Theatre Company at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | Through Dec. 27 | (323) 960-4429 | plays411.com/dirty

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