Stranded

One of the hardest things for an Off-Off Broadway production to do is establish mood in a quiet piece. Pocket-sized theaters sitting uncomfortably close to each other, or adjacent to bars, do not allow for the silences of natural conversation—they are either punctured by their neighbor's music or screams, or sound artificial and magnify the staginess of the affair. Moreover, most shows limit their sound design to intro/intermission/end music culled from the director's CD collection. In Michael Puzzo's The Dirty Talk, which has gone from 2005 Fringe Festival entry to published piece to Off-Off-Broadway run, the action takes place in an isolated cabin during a torrential downpour. Sound designer Elizabeth Rhodes has created an aural backdrop of rain and thunder, modulated in tone to go from barely audible to loud and intrusive, which puts the audience in the same room as the characters. It's a simple touch but a nice one, and it helps the actors along in this intense and involving one-act play.

Two men are stuck in a remote hunting shack in New Jersey: Mitch, a beer-and-babes type who's dripping wet from trying to fix his rain-flooded car, and Lino, a strange, withdrawn guy who is clearly not in his element. At first it's unclear what they are both doing at this place, and why Mitch is so hostile. It comes out that they "met" the night before in an Internet chat room and engaged in "the dirty talk," but they lied about themselves and their appearances, especially Lino, who was masquerading as a voluptuous blond babe. Faced with an awkward situation and lacking an escape, the two are forced to come to terms with the real truth about themselves.

If all this sounds too serious, it's not. There is humor in the mix as well, although often the laughs are at the bluntness of Mitch's speech. As played by Sidney Williams, the character is deceptively complex; he's a wounded puppy one minute and a bear the next. Mitch's emotional journey over the course of the play is interesting without being gimmicky or untruthful. As the yang to his yin, Kevin Cristaldi's Lino is believable as a creepy Internet addict. A disaffected, scummy modern man, he allows a glimmer of humanity and loneliness to shine through his armor.

Director Padraic Lillis is careful to keep these men at a certain physical distance apart, and as their emotional distance narrows, so does the spatial gap between them. Lillis has also given his actors room to inhabit their roles while keeping a tight leash on their monologues, lest they become sprawling. Puzzo's script seems a bit cliché-ridden at first, but later his characters drop this "everyspeech" for words of their own. The author does a nice job with parceling out information about the characters' prior meeting so that their dialogue, which is mostly about killing time, does not make the audience feel as if it's killing time as well.

From Robert Monaco's masculine log cabin set to Sarah Sidman's natural lighting, every detail in the production contributes to a unique feeling of reality. At one point I tuned out for a second to consider how I'd get home with my bags without an umbrella, yet outside the theater it was a clear night. The world onstage had blended into the world offstage, and to this fine show's credit, one could not tell which was which.

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