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Theatre in Review: Dust (Next Door at NYTW)

Milly Thomas. Photo: Emilio Madrid.

As the priest tells the faithful on Ash Wednesday, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is the immediate prospect for Alice, the protagonist of Milly Thomas' solo play, who wakes up in a morgue, a suicide. Not that she is quite ready to crumble into tiny particles: Having been parted from her body -- she has been dead for three days -- she examines her own remains with clinical interest. "There are flecks of blood crusting my labia shut," she says, offering the first clue of what kind of night we are in for. "I have an overwhelming urge to taste myself," she adds. "I don't, though. The smell is enough to stop me."

Well, fasten your seatbelts: The next ninety minutes promise nothing but more of the same. Alice is a very contemporary sort of heroine, along the lines of the template created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag: a foulmouthed, drinking, drugging, sexually compulsive hellion, her self-destructiveness meant to be fascinating and/or hilarious until it isn't. Waller-Bridge had the advantage of a genuine wit and a devastating comic delivery; she charmed one first, revealing her character's considerable scar tissue only by degrees. Dust plants itself offensively in one's face and refuses to budge for its full running time.

Most of Dust follows Alice as she wanders, rather like the ghost of Jacob Marley, through the emotional ruins she left behind. Whether you can tolerate this brisk trip through these emotional lower depths will depend on whether you are taken with Alice's supposedly satiric commentary. Her family home, she notes, smells like "a jumper you've worn for a whole week and you think, Is this what I really smell like?" Slipping into her boyfriend's bedroom, she discovers the grieving young man on the receiving end of a mercy blowjob; she sticks around for the finale, noting of the young lady involved, "her body bucks as she lifts her head to accommodate the semen." Remarking, in a flashback, to her friend, Ellie, that her understandably worried mother wants her to move back home, she adds, "I'd rather eat a fistful of her pubes every day for a year."

If such remarks don't amuse you, you may be feeling a little suicidal yourself as Dust works its way to its foregone conclusion. Founded on the notion that growing up in an unremarkable middle-class family is nothing less than a living hell, it describes Alice's existence as defined by "intense feelings of dread, recurrent thoughts of death, inadequacy, therapist after therapist with bad breath and sweaty foreheads," followed by an encyclopedic list of psychotropic drugs. Alice is institutionalized, her friends desert her, she cuts herself, then complains when Ben caresses her scars. This happens during a sequence describing her inner thoughts while being taken from behind; of course, none of them involve pleasure or affection.

In truth, Dust's meticulous inventory of squalor is a dodge designed to hide the script's essential sentimentality. Alice, we are meant to understand, is fighting off the seemingly infinite self-loathing that threatens to devour her whole; underneath her hard-boiled exterior is a beating heart yearning for self- love. The more horridly she behaves, the more our hearts are meant to bleed for her. But you'll have to take the author's word for that; as written, Alice is little more than a compendium of neurotic symptoms, alluring to clinicians, perhaps, but not terribly interesting as a dramatic heroine.

Thomas, who also stars, is a gifted technician, slipping in and out of various characters -- and, even when Dust is at its most repellent, it is difficult to look away from her. Three times she manages to transcend the script's limitations: as her hair-raisingly vulgar Aunt Isabel, who studies newspaper accounts of crime victims' funerals, looking to find decorative hints for Alice's service; as Alice's brother, Robbie, a drug addict himself, who delivers one of the more scalding eulogies in modern drama; and during the finale, which describes Alice's suicide ritual in meticulous detail. Even so, her calculations are rather too nakedly evident; what she delivers -- as both playwright and performer -- is less a characterization than a series of carefully counted-out shock effects.

At least, the director, Sara Joyce, has supplied a highly theatrical production, aided by Anna Reid's creepily sterile set -- a shiny metal table backed by three mirrors -- and Jack Weir's inventive lighting, which blends starkly theatrical spotlight looks with faintly disturbing color washes and sweeping light-curtain effects. (Reid also supplied the flesh-colored unitard that Thomas wears all night long.) Less successful is Max Perryment's sound design, which goes overboard with menacing low hums and buzzes, as well as distracting underscoring during the funeral sequence.

You will not be surprised to hear that Dust lacks a happy ending; by the time the finale arrives, you may feel so worked over that any sympathy or interest in Alice's fate has long since vanished. This is a tricky high-wire act, and it is perhaps not surprising that Thomas repeatedly falls off. That she is a considerable talent is beyond doubt; that she is performing psychological surgery with blunt instruments is all too apparent. --David Barbour

(6 September 2019)

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