DirtyTalk.JPGAt its best, Michael Puzzo’s two-character comedy, The Dirty Talk, blows by with a breezy jokiness that’s laugh-out-loud funny, but my periodic chuckling proved no match for the explosions of raucous laughter that repeatedly rocked the house.

It was the kind of roaring laughter one imagines pealing from a well-lubricated Borscht-belt crowd; at times the howling was so disproportionate to the one-liner that sparked it that I had to fight the urge to look back and see who these people were. Was the house papered with ingratiated family and friends who think The King of Queens is a scream, or did I miss out on a crucial pre-show round of drinks?

The situation that frames the comedy is simple: Two men meet for the first time at an isolated cabin (designed by Rob Monaco, with a massive bed devouring center stage). Mitch (Sidney Williams) is an irate, apparently Average-Joe divorcee whose father owns the place where Lino (Kevin Cristaldi) has arrived for what was supposed to be a romantic rendezvous. It’s their first time meeting in person after a steamy internet courtship and things immediately start off on the wrong foot when Mitch sees that Lino is not exactly the busty Hooters waitress he pretended to be online. But a sudden downpour has flooded the roads! So the two are stuck together for an hour and change of comic excoriation, intimidation, and, of course, self-revelation.

It might have been a long storm to sit through were it not for Williams and Cristaldi, who keep the play afloat with seemingly effortless comic chemistry. Cristaldi does an admirable job of playing a creepy guy who’s actually warm and likeable; Williams imbues Mitch with a high-octane bluster that often falls away to reveal a jumble of raw nerves.

The problem is that the script calls for a perpetual hostility from Mitch that quickly gets repetitive, especially in the first half of the play. Thankfully, as the night wears on, the nasty banter yields to several intimate confessions that are handled with refreshing understatement by all involved.

The not-so-novel idea behind the play seems to be that in our age internet communication, where anyone can be whoever they want online, our personal sense of identity is becoming as opaque as the other mysterious strangers in the chat room. Ironically, and a bit too neatly, it takes Lino’s web of lies for Mitch to finally grasp the depth of his own self-deception.

In the end, Puzzo has the good sense not to tailor his premise to fit the exhausted genre of coming-out theater. In fact, the story contains little in the way of narrative action or surprises, which is perhaps its greatest appeal. Instead of succumbing to some contrived plot twist – during an extended blackout caused by the storm, I was very worried that Cristaldi would be in drag when the lights came up again – Puzzo has the integrity to let the play be what it is: two guys in a room talking it out.

The Dirty Talk runs at Center Stage [48 West 21st Street, 4th floor] through February 4th. Tickets cost $18.

Photo by Jim Baldassare.