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Dirty Deeds Done Right

Word for Word’s latest play, Smut, hits all the right spots.


The defining moment in Word for Word’s latest production comes while the lead character, the widower Mrs. Donaldson, is narrating a scene. A bell rings, and—as in Saved by the Bell—the action freezes, save for her, free to continue her narration directly to the audience. Once she finishes, the bell rings again and the action onstage picks back up. And in this case, action is precisely the right word: Just behind her, the young couple who’ve been boarding with Mrs. Donaldson are twisted around one another in bed, engaged in some very performative, over-the-top boot-knocking.

The scene illustrates both the challenges and the creative fun of Word for Word’s latest undertaking. The play, Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson), open through June 11 at the Z Space’s downstairs stage, is adapted from a 90-page novella of the same name by playwright Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George, The History Boys, Lady in the Van). As with all of the company’s productions, the story was first read aloud as part of their Off the Page series, and then adapted and formally staged—in this case by director Amy Kossow. 

Working so closely from the source material—characters voice everything, even the “he said, lifting his arm”–type explanations—would seem to get in the way of the dialogue-centric prose more typical of the theater. Yet Smut works, thanks to a sort of knowing wink it sends the audience, and some fun and clever staging that keep the momentum of scenes moving forward while also delivering the requisite third-person narration.

It doesn’t hurt that the story itself is full of humor. Mrs. Donaldson, a middle-class housewife, feels herself embodying a more outgoing persona as a result of working as a “simulated patient” in a medical school, where she play-acts as a patient complaining of different maladies in order for the students to practice diagnoses. Her priggish British exterior begins to melt away, culminating in the titular unseemly act with a teenaged boarding couple, and her subsequent elation, shame, and eventual ownership of it.

The cast, led by Nancy Shelby as Mrs. Donaldson, milks the story for laughs, while Kossow’s direction adds new ones—particularly a series of karaoke-style musical interludes that both reinforce the awkward absurdity of the central action and, more crucially, allow the actors a moment to change costumes (a necessity of the stage). Together, they make a fine tribute to Bennett’s prose, and even add to it a little more spice.


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