Miranda Huba’s Dirty Little Machine should be subtitled “Jane’s Ambivalence and Dick’s Dilemma.” Jane, the protagonist, is ambivalent about our “dirty little machine,” which is Huba’s elastic metaphor for the mechanization, specialization, technologization, and anatomization of sexuality in this (post)modern era. That is, porn. And the appropriately named Dick is her two-dimensional foil, he who she calls “The Weasel” because he has collapsed the Madonna / whore dichotomy into one misogynistic, incestuous, feminine catch-all category. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying sex in Dirty Little Machine is what bored people do to pass the time between permanent adolescence and senescent despair.
A dilemma is a choice between two mutually exclusive options. Dick, who produces pornography, articulates his dilemma thusly: “we give these small town hicks two choices, they can either become a prostitute or a porn star.” Dick isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but his dilemma – women are either prostitutes or porn stars – is a nice bit of ironic paradox when we realize that pornography literally means pictures of prostitutes. And so the choice he offers the gentler sex is no choice at all: you are a whore; the only difference is how much (and in what manner) you get paid.
Jane’s ambivalence is the motive engine of her philosophical mission, which she tells us is to date “the most fucked up degenerate self-proclaimed ‘sexual deviant’” she can find, hoping that “if I date a totally misogynist porn loving douche bag my sexual fantasies will either be fulfilled, or, I will renounce all disempowering sexual fantasies, and/or related activities.” Either way she feels she will become a feminist. Jane is ambivalent about porn. When she was still pre-pubescent she found a pornographic novel that tells the story of a girl who is sexually initiated by her uncle. I use the term “initiated” advisedly, because Jane’s problem is precisely her dissatisfaction with our society’s insistence that women who like kink have been abused. (If you didn’t catch it the first time, this means she is a feminist.) She was turned on by the story, and ever since she has both abhorred “totally misogynist porn loving douche bag[s]” and sought them out knowing that they will be the most fulfilling sexual partners. Besides, everyone knows that suffering builds character.
The fact that this story of sexual objectification is told from the perspective of a woman who objectifies men makes it compelling, if not terribly revealing. The dynamic of the play is to read against our default perception that women are victims and men are predators, and so it is stuffed full of easy ironies, ambiguous innuendos, and the pleasant cognitive dissonance dirty kink adds to our sexual fantasies. Its post-modern style is as slick and shallow as the porn-pop culture it wishes to parody. Nathan Schwartz’s direction exploits this narrative logic expertly. The action zips down rails of snappy dialogue and Richard Forman-esque sound design. The two actors, Joanne Wilson as Jane and Ben Mann as Dick, hit every mark with superior comic precision.
Merely seeing a woman sexually degraded is only fun for the first five minutes, however, and once you’re done cleaning up, you go back to girlfriends, wives, mothers, and sisters for real, quality feminine face time. After the playwright is finished probing Jane’s ambivalence with Dick’s dilemma, she wraps up the action in classic comic style: they marry. What happens next? I would imagine in the sequel they have kids, hide their porn use as much as possible, and are outraged when they discover their spawn also likes masturbating to twisted fantasies of shame and degradation. That play will be a post-modern tragedy, just as this is, to borrow the title of a book on the same subject, a “Super Sad True Love Story.”