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I Used to Write on Walls

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Darcie Champagne and Jeff Berg.
Photo courtesy of Working Man's Clothes/DARR Publicity.

More often than not, the substance of love overlaps with the substances of dreams, desperation, delusions and death-dances. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter explores this melange in the form of a menage-a-quatre in the Working Man's Clothes production of I Used To Write On Walls. In it, a surfer- cum-philosopher, a.k.a bonehead with delusions of importance, Trevor (Jeff Berg), traipses through three women's lives, leaving them shattered but only adding to the damage that was already in place. Set in modern day New York City, I Used To Write On Walls is a comedic drama in a loose format that explores the loss of oneself through romantic endeavors. The ways of the lost are aptly pathetic, fanciful, impetuous and all-consuming, and wonderfully illustrated by Brunstetter's rich, hyper-candid characters and naked dialogue.

The play opens with Anna (Chelsey Shannon, a Keri Russell and Rebecca Gayheart mix), a harp-playing, simultaneously precocious and puerile 11-year old beauty anticipating menstruation and womanhood. She is so attractive that she stops people in their tracks, distant relatives desire her, and her mom (a bland Rachel Dorfman) is openly envious of her features and would like nothing more than to usurp her appeal. Shannon is engaging and funny as a pre-teen, voicing opinions usually hidden in diaries with enthusiasm. The exchanges between Anna and her mom is the first evidence of Brunstetter's gift of gab, but from Anna's mouth comes some words that are arguably too mature and deserving of discipline. Discipline she will not receive, however, from a mom who treats her too much like a peer and an actress who handles the role with more nonchalance than I believe is required. From there, the presence of Anna and her mom is scarce as we segue into the introduction of more recurrent characters. She does, however, make a crucial and timely cameo later that would otherwise make her inclusion entertaining, but negligible.

The first to meet and willing submit to Trevor's hard-bodied, elusive ways is Diane (Amanda "Maggie" Hamilton), a socially inept patrol cop. She is socially inept not only because she is tongue-tied and awkward, but because unlike what is deemed acceptable, she is unusually frank about her motives. She finds Trevor casing a wall that he wants to draw a wave on, but instead of admonishing him, she succumbs to his looks. An unlikely romance between them takes root in her brain, despite any intellectual objections. She meets Joanne (Darcie Champagne), a peppy makeup artist with no self-esteem and suicidal tendencies who is waiting for a savior. Unfortunately, her savior comes in the form of Trevor, the polyamorous, Jesus T-shirt wearing dude that isn't remotely interested in being her redeemer, but will gladly redeem the world's economic and social structure instead. As a matter of fact, his "rad, rad philosophical journey" is a constant priority in his interactions with these women, and no one can fault him for making empty promises or being a liar. After all, he can't help it if he's a nice, sexy drifter that delights, right?

The final woman touched by Trevor is Georgia (a refreshingly feisty Lavita Shaurice), an African-American spoken-word artist that pops up between scenes as if a sole member of a Greek chorus. Her poetry seems to comment on the developments, and for a better part of the play, she appears to be affected directly. Unfortunately, she later reveals herself as a witting participant in Trevor's love ring, begging for more love than can be shared between the sheets. A smarter move would be to either keep her as an observer, or keep her involvement with Trevor ambiguous. Shaurice's poetic interruptions may be strange, but they are a nice departure, both in language and in plot, from the action.

Maggie Hamilton
Photo courtesy of Working Man's Clothes/DARR Publicity.

I Used To Write On Walls is an allegory for the reckless abandon and freedom that Trevor possesses but that was either stolen by disappointments and age or involuntarily exchanged for self-effacement and dependence by Diane, Joanne and Georgia. The fact that three very different characters are so enraptured by such a spacey, groundless character is testament to that fact. It is not about Trevor because Trevor is all surface and neither character develops anything with him that extends past the bedroom. He is, however, an object that they can lavish both their affections and defections on.

In general, the cast is very strong under Diana Basmajian and Isaac Byrne's direction, delving into their roles as needy, emotionally distraught women. The secondary characters that appear in the second act, however, are devices and unnecessary. Though Mona (a vibrant Ellen David), a former astronaut turned sadist is exciting, her contribution to the play could have been omitted. The intentions of having Trevor suffer in some way to compensate for his own painful inflictions on the women are noted, but because Trevor never purposefully hurts anyone, his suffering is unwarranted even if a shared female fantasy. Diane's mom (Mary Round) is the quintessential expectant and disapproving mom, but despite giving the audience a window into possibly understanding Diane's plight, she is also not instrumental to the plot. And if Diane is going to get a psychological brace, Joanne and Georgia should as well. As Trevor, Jeff Berg embodies the stereotype of a surfer, but his portrayal suffers from too much Tom Cruise-isms that he must have carried into this play from his previous work in I Was Tom Cruise. Sadly, he still is Tom Cruise, both in appearance and in manner.

The stage is a small platform set by April Bartlett that seldom works well for the various scene locations. It is illuminated by Lighting Designer Jake Platt with stringed lights on a bed of dirt and various, strategically placed lamps. Despite the lack of adequate overhead lights, the lamps look very clunky. The overlapping of scenes work in some instances, but in others, give the appearance of the production being pressed for time.

Despite some technical issues and some excessive characters, Bekah Brunstetter demonstrates with I Used To Write On Walls that she is a strong playwright, capable of manipulating language for realism and cleverness to full effect. This play is raw and poignant, from the joint-smoking on stage to the wanton confessions. It is a psychological look at the motives behind fruitless behavior with lessons and laughter, and even a pointing finger.

I Used to Write on Walls
Through October 27
Gene Frankel Theatre Underground, 24 Bond Street between Lafayette & Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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