For some, pedantry is simply a lifestyle choice. For Brian Dykstra, it’s a sacred calling. The slam poet/stand-up comedian/playwright makes this abundantly clear with “A Play on Words,” his two-hander about language and the people who screw it up, which takes quite a while to get into gear. When it does, though, it goes great places. As his two characters quibble endlessly about definitions and word choices, Dykstra sneaks in some incisive political commentary and arrives at conclusions both commonly held and rarely spoken.
Dykstra’s first point seems to be that you can talk quite a bit and accomplish nothing. As the happy-go-lucky Rusty (Mark Boyett) wanders, wearing a red shirt, through the yard of his grouchy, blue-shirted neighbor Max (Dykstra), he says “Hey” and “What’s the story,” then spends the next 50 minutes regretting it. All Rusty wants is for Max to tell him why he’s staring at a blank sheet of posterboard; all Max wants is for Rusty to go away.
There are two problems with this first half of the play. The largest is that the exchange, which is pointedly not about anything except semantics, slows down the clock like a really long grammar lecture. The second is that the dialogue’s focus on pedantry causes a kind of meta-pedantry in the listener (did he pronounce that correctly? Are we sure?).
Finally, just when you’re ready to scream, Max reveals his master plan to Rusty. Without giving away too much, Max’s vision hinges on the invention of two slogans inflammatory enough to incite violence in both conservatives and liberals.
Think about that for a moment: Dykstra’s premise, which no one in the audience seemed to have any trouble buying, is that a large enough group of like-minded angry Americans could be encouraged to physically assault, maybe kill someone by a motto short enough to fit on a bumper sticker (the winning slogans are three very funny words each). It’s terrifying to think public discourse has sunk to that level, but it’s not very difficult.
Both performers deliver the material wisely and well, and helmer Margarett Perry keeps the tone light, but the lightness is mostly a counterpoint to Dykstra’s bleak assessment. It’s a grim play with a happy face, and when it really gets down to business, it makes an uncomfortable amount of sense.