The dirt and filth in Rob Mersola’s hilarious World Premiere comedy Dirty Filthy Love Story isn’t what its title may lead you to expect, though there is indeed plenty of R-rated raunch once the sexual sparks ignite between its in-love-&-lust protagonists.

lwh-4 No, the dirt and filth Mersola is writing about is the kind that can only accumulate after years and years of hoarding, something soon-to-be lovers Ashley Floerchinger (Jennifer Pollono) and Halbert Shint (Joshua Bitton) know only too well.

Ashley is, you see, a hoarder, and Hal is in the dirty filthy business of cleaning up messes like those that have built up both inside and outside Ashley’s house in the five or so years since her husband David left her to fend for herself.

And quite a chaotic clutter of accumulated junk it is, though the cheap-looking façade that appears initially to be the extent of David Mauer and Hazel Kuang’s set reveals nothing of the first of many surprises Dirty Filthy Love Story has in store for unsuspecting audiences. Production stills already give away a taste of what Mauer and Kuang’s design offers, and this review will leave it at that, except to add that Dirty Filthy Love Story is a shoo-in for Production Design Scenies, and that goes for Leigh Allen’s lighting and Christopher Moscatiello’s sound designs as well.

The human catalyst that sets Dirty Filthy Love Story’s plot in motion is Ashley’s neighbor Benny Steets (playwright Mersola stepping into the role for the first time at the performance reviewed). Benny has, you see, been trying to sell his house, the better to move on from a failed same-sex romance, a task that is proving no easy one with Ashley’s accumulated personal belongings and garbage (trash bag after extra-large trash bagful) filling not only the interior of the pigsty she calls home but stretching out to cover her front yard and the side space separating her abode from Benny’s as well.

Following a mess-provoked accident which leaves him hobbling on crutches, Benny calls for help in the person of the aforementioned Hal, whom Ashley is at first almost pathologically reluctant to let inside her house, insisting that he take care of her exterior garbage and leave it at that.

Eventually, though, Ashley does let Hal in, and not just into her dirty filthy home but into her wounded heart as well.

306884_517558738262534_1274080271_n If this sounds more than a bit like the heartwarming losers-in-love romcoms this reviewer has raved about in years past (Frankie And Johnny In The Claire De Lune and Brilliant Traces come to mind), then indeed Dirty Filthy Love Story does have its satisfied-sighworthy moments. Ashley and Hal are indeed damaged souls in search of their soul mate, but playwright Mersola has mostly other things in mind as Dirty Filthy Love Story develops into as black a black comedy as black comedies can be.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect for Dirty Filthy Love Story to get its World Premiere, and not only because it provides Angelinos with a terrific playgoing option at a time when virtually every other theater in town is shut down for the holidays. A&E’s hit reality series Hoarders has been intervening in the lives of human pack rats since 2009, and only this month the American Psychiatric Association announced its decision to reclassify hoarding as its very own disorder (“Hoarding Disorder”) rather than as a symptom of OCD.

Ashley does indeed suffer from what the APA calls “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value,” a trait expressed in her oft-spoken mantra “Good stuff,” uttered whenever Hal dares even to suggest throwing something away. After all, Ashley insists, even those umpteen garbage bags may hold hidden treasures, and Hal had best not even think about getting rid of the lawn furniture that has until his arrival been buried under piles of trash on her front lawn.

Mersola’s previous smash Backseats & Bathroom Stalls (retitled Love Sucks when it played at the Coast Theatre last year) “had me laughing out loud through its eighty-five minutes of outrageous surprises,” and the same can be said about Dirty Filthy Love Story, albeit with half as many characters and a twenty-minute-shorter running time. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to think of another 2012 comedy that has more laughs per minute than Dirty Filthy Love Story, a combination of slapstick and raunch—and some pretty dark comedy in its last fifteen minutes or so.

lwh-10 Crackerjack comedienne Pollono couldn’t be more winning as girl-next-door Ashley (that is if the girl next door were one hot mess of a hoarder), the actress’s innate likeability keeping us on her side even as events spiral dangerously out of control. Bitton, who played gay so believably in Mersola’s previous opus, is equally convincing as nerdy, mumbling, heterosexually repressed Hal, disappearing so completely into the role that it might take you a minute to believe it’s really Bitton underneath all that makeup grime. The twosome have great chemistry together, both romantic and sexual, as they abandon all vanity and sense of propriety in some of the funniest coupling scenes you’re likely ever to see. Finally, it couldn’t have been more of a treat to see playwright Mersola step so sensationally into hapless Benny’s shoes, the horror in his eyes upon first glance at the inside of Ashley’s pigsty paling in comparison to the horror reflected there as he finds himself ….

Writing-directing-acting triple-threat Mersola originated the role Bitton played in Love Sucks in its original New York production and directed it twice in L.A. (winning Best Director Scenies each time). For Dirty Filthy Love Story, he has passed the directorial torch to Rogue Machine’s very own Elina de Santos, whose experience in helming heavy dramas like Bhutan keeps Dirty Filthy Love Story reality-based even as de Santos demonstrates a deft hand at comedy, be it whimsical, farcical, or darksical.

Mauer and Kuang’s set design is in a class by itself, offering the most astonishing reveal since Jeff McLaughlin won a whole bunch of awards for a similarly applause-provoking surprise in A Skull In Connemara a few years back. Add to that Allen’s expert lighting, Moscatiello’s supremely imaginative sound design, and costumes so deliberately distressed that no one takes credit or blame for them and you’ve got a scenic design almost worth the price of admission.

Dirty Filthy Love Story is produced by John Perrin Flynn, Andrew Carlberg, Pollono, and de Santos. Mauer is technical director and Megan Laughlin stage manager.

The simple fact that Dirty Filthy Love Story is playing both this weekend and next is manna enough for L.A. theatergoers. That it provides more laughs for your buck than any other show in town is icing on the dirty filthy cake.

Extension:  Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont, Los Angeles.

Reviewed at Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
December 21, 2012
Photos: John Flynn

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