Equity Library Theatre Chicago

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Our perceptions are shaped by a gestalt–a way of organizing information into meaningful patterns. That’s how we sort through the details: those that fit our personal gestalt get noticed, while the rest fade into the background. The problem, of course, is that though a gestalt helps us to focus on what we consider important, it can also cause us to overlook valuable information.

. . . Some Unfinished Chaos . . . has a major gestalt problem. Playwright Evan Blake has created two potentially interesting characters inspired by short-story master Raymond Carver and poet Tess Gallagher, who lived together for several years before Carver died of lung cancer. In the play, Eric Wittenger is a writer living off the fame of his only novel, published 17 years earlier, and Jessamyn Tyler is an attractive young woman just out of college who worships him. When Blake looks at these characters, however, he sees only a sentimental love story played out against the backdrop of impending death. Meanwhile the characters’ behavior raises all sorts of provocative questions that apparently have no place in the playwright’s gestalt.

The play begins in the bedroom of the novelist’s new house, where he’s seeking refuge from the surprise housewarming party thrown for him by his ex-wife. He’s joined by a comely young would-be writer, the girlfriend of his agent. For Jessamyn, the name “Eric Wittenger” belongs in the pantheon of literature–she can hardly believe she’s standing in the same room with him, and promptly decides to seduce him. Why? Is this just some perverse form of autograph collecting? Does Jessamyn hope to gain the master’s guidance in exchange for sex? Is she desperate for the affection of a surrogate daddy?

These are crucial questions, but the only motive the playwright suggests comes in Eric’s cynical line during this scene obliquely commenting on Jessamyn’s overture: “Writers and vampires–we both feed on the blood of the living.” Yet the playwright never follows up on this idea. In his view, the young woman’s advances are simply the beginning of a sweet love affair, and she must overcome the novelist’s sourness.

Blake never examines the assumption that writing is an exalted activity, either. Eric’s only novel emerged from the chaos of his first marriage, which failed because he was so obsessed with writing a novel. Since then he’s continued to peck away, hoping to complete his long-awaited second novel, but each sentence seems to exhaust him. Why does he persist? Does he really need to write? Or does he merely need to be “a writer” so he can feel that he’s living a meaningful existence? Again, the play raises interesting questions that the playwright ignores.

Instead, with a gestalt that seems shaped by Hollywood, Blake focuses almost exclusively on the romantic possibilities of his play and expresses them in schmaltzy conventional symbols. When Eric returns home with the Bad News, for example, it’s raining hard outside, with thunder rumbling in the background and water dripping down the window. The scene verges on a spoof of hackneyed screenplays. And Eric is fond of carnations, which bloom in the autumn. “When everything around it is dying,” he says, “it is blooming, like a memorial.” Jessamyn, however, prefers roses, the traditional symbol of love. When roses and carnations end up in the same vase at the end, with a spotlight lingering on them as the lights go down, it’s just plain cornball.

But though the script is weak, this Equity Library Theatre production is surprisingly strong. Under the sound direction of Richard Grubbs, the two actors give sincere performances that almost conceal the characters’ shallowness. Tod Wheeler persuasively portrays Eric as a dour, peevish man full of anger and anxiety. With his droopy mustache and faux-British demeanor, Wheeler resembles playwright Edward Albee–an excellent model for Wittenger. Wheeler even mimics the snide, contemptuous attitude Albee projects in public, an attitude that seems designed to conceal his need for approval. Bridgett McCarthy as Jessamyn is fresh-faced, perky, exuberant, and terribly serious–just the qualities one would expect in a Nebraska innocent.