I Used to Write on Walls
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 12, 2007
Bekah Brunstetter's new play I Used to Write on Walls is about three women who, unbeknownst to each other, are all dating the same guy. The guy is a hunky 25-year-old surfer-dude type named Trevor who has come to New York to become a philosopher. The women are: Diane, a policewoman who is insecure about her body and her ability to have a healthy relationship with a man; Joanne, a cosmetologist who is insecure about her body and her ability to have a healthy relationship with a man; and Georgia, an African American slam poet who is insecure about her ability to have a healthy relationship with a man (her character is less well-developed than the other two women; if it were more realized, I bet we'd get some information about her poor body-image as well). The play also features, in one scene, a crazy middle-aged woman named Mona who tells Trevor she is an astronaut and ties him up; and, in a few scenes, an 11-year-old girl named Anna who is obsessed with becoming a sexual being (she shouts at her mother that she's having her first period, only to be told that the red stain on her skirt is just the residue of spilled popsicle).
The first act of the play feels sort of like "Six Degrees of Trevor," with the three women who are dating him simultaneously having chance encounters with one another, never becoming the wiser about the man they have in common; Trevor is not unlike Paul, the antagonist of John Guare's Six Degrees play—a stranger who's at once exciting enough to make others want him and sufficiently a blank slate to become whatever they want him to be. Diane's relationship with Trevor, which is the most developed in the script, is also the one to root for (this may be in part due to the excellent, richly human performance of Maggie Hamilton, who makes Diane the one character in this play who feels authentic and likable).
But in Act Two, Brunstetter abandons what has heretofore seemed to be her theme, and instead throws in all kinds of stuff that just feels random and sensational: a bomb explodes, one of the characters attempts suicide, Mona ties Trevor up, etc. Indeed, Trevor suddenly emerges as the likeliest candidate for protagonist of this play, though I'm not sure what his journey finally adds up to. As for Anna—well, it's never really clear who she is (despite her appearance in the play's final moments). Is she some sort of young prototype for Diane and Joanne (with whom she shares a similar name; though if so, how does Georgia fit into the mix)?
The weird plotting concerned me much less, though, than the sexual politics of I Used to Write on Walls. On the one hand, it's sort of cool to have three women portrayed as sexual aggressors and the bimboish guy as their objectified lust object (and Jeff Berg, as Trevor, spends much of his stage time taking off one shirt after another to reveal a buff torso for the ladies to ogle).
But I was deeply disturbed—perhaps even offended—that Brunstetter's women seem to define themselves only in terms of their attractiveness to men. Joanne actually suffers (the press materials tell us) from a condition known as Kolpophobia, which means she's terrified that her vagina is ugly. Topics like ugly vaginas are pretty much all these women seem to think about: the talk is almost exclusively about what people look like, whether or not they're pretty, and whether or not they'd like to have sex. This is pretty reductive, and without any counter-examples, it suggests that Brunstetter views women as hopelessly shallow. (The only character in the play who ever seems to think about issues larger than himself is the dim bulb Trevor, reinforcing the negative anti-feminist mode that the play seems to fall into.)
Following Penetrator and fuckplays, this is another production from Working Man's Clothes that seems calculated to shock rather than challenge or move its audience, which is another way of saying that it's not the kind of theatre that I particularly enjoy. It is well-produced and tightly directed by Isaac Byrne and Diana Basmajian. As for playwright Brunstetter, she clearly has talent; there's many a neatly turned phrase in I Used to Write in Walls. But too much of this play feels contrived and glib, and in the end I was puzzled about what she intended me to take away from this fleetingly interesting but ultimately unsatisfying play.