It’s hard to tell if it’s a man’s world or a women’s world in I Used to Write on Walls, the new play from the prolific Bekah Brunstetter currently playing at the Gene Frankel Underground(?). Directed tag-team style by Diana Basmajian and Isaac Byrne, this production – the latest from Working Man’s Clothes – follows three women, all desperate in their own way, as they orbit an Adonis named Trevor whose true love remains himself.
Trevor (Jeff Berg, clearly having a great time as a clueless surfer dude) first encounters thirtysomething police officer Diane (Amanda “Maggie” Hamilton) as he starts vandalizing a wall. Instantly smitten and in denial, Diane gives him a free pass as she enters into a relationship with him – and it won’t be the last time she does that. Diane then meets Joanne (Darcie Champagne), a cosmetologist with serious self-esteem issues, who is also linked to Trevor. One aspect of Walls that I had some trouble grasping was whether the events of the play take place in a linear fashion or if there were temporal shifts occurring. Do Trevor’s relationships with Diane and Joanne both take place concurrently, or do they not run as parallel to each other as the play makes it seem?
Georgia (Lavita Shaurice) also peppers the play with several appearances as a spoken word artist who also has ties to Trevor. Unfortunately, Brunstetter never gives her as much time or depth as she does to Diane and Joanne, and as a result Georgia never registers as a full character, despite Shaurice’s perfectly delivered performance art pieces. Other female characters jump out of the wood work at various points: Chelsey Shannon tackles a small yet complicated role as an eleven-year-old girl on the verge of womanhood possessing a charm she has yet to understand how to use, and Rachel Dorfman appears as Anna’s exasperated mother. (To underscore what a non-character Dorfman has to work with, Anna’s mother does not even have a name of her own)While these two characters never interact with most of the headlining roles, they prove to be nonetheless integral to the story.
But it’s the story itself that remains puzzling to decipher. Is Trevor just a gigolo? Is he a user or the used? Are any of the characters more self-aware than they let on? It’s hard to tell, particularly as Brunstetter’s plot moves off in a tangent during the play’s final scenes, rendering many of the earlier moments as either inconsequential or moot. Ellen David late appearance as Mona, an astronaut with the emphasis on “naught,” as in naughty, distracts more than elucidates any of the action. It is hard to grasp what emotions Brunstetter is trying pull at, and what her ultimate message is. This largely stems from the ambiguity of the character of Trevor, which could be a flaw in the playwriting itself, or maybe a performance problem.
Other performances, though, are far better-defined. From entrance to curtain call, Hamilton is nothing short of a revelation, rife with perfect comic timing and a powerful emotional investment, making Diane’s loneliness a harrowing experience. Champagne, too, makes Joanne’s inner pain completely palpable. One of Brunstetter’s greatest gifts is her ear for dialogue, particularly slightly off-kilter lines that recall early David Lindsay-Abaire, and both Hamilton’s and Champagne’s vocal delivery is quite nimble, the way Eminem is able to wrap his tongue around his own lyrics. Both actresses ground the play, whether it be through the monologues that they soldier through or far-off glances they maintain while upstage of the main action.
However, what the audience is left with is a big dramatic taco, a play with a solid outer shell but a soft inside that cannot quite be contained. Walls does so much right, from Jake Platt’s lighting design to the performances of its two leading ladies, that the story’s later turns feel disappointing, though Basmajian and Byrne are to be credited for helming a well-paced, well-cast show. My only wish is that they had spoken up more to try and iron out the script. Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.