What Does That Mean?

Wax Lips Theatre Company

at Angel Island

By Justin Hayford

It might be tempting to dismiss John Corwin as just one more solipsistic off-Loop playwright so short on ideas he’s penned yet another play about self-absorbed actors. But unlike the flood of true-to-life navel gazers in Chicago, Corwin uses the theater as a metaphor for something larger–the human propensity to turn real-life romance into drama and other people into fictional characters. He seems fascinated by the way people cast and recast their friends and lovers to satisfy their own warped ideals of love. But this simplistic summation hardly begins to capture Corwin’s newest play, What Does That Mean?, a cryptic and demanding work as intriguing as it is impenetrable.

Corwin is an unapologetically difficult playwright, borrowing from Ionesco, Pinter, and Albee–and adding a generous dash of Mamet. Like his closest aesthetic cousin in Chicago, Ian Pierce, Corwin has cobbled together a semiabsurdist, metatheatrical approach that rarely gives an audience easy access to his brooding, hard-edged fantasies. What Does That Mean? is hard work.

For the audience, that effort begins with the opening moment of the play, which involves five unnamed characters in three discrete scenes. In the first, two women and a man barely emerge from the darkness, each lit by a dim spot. The women sit in chairs, one plainly visible downstage center and the other barely perceptible stage left. The man stands in the back in half shadows. It’s a strain to see anyone’s expression. For the next 30 minutes or so, the stage picture remains the same. The actors don’t move, and their voices rarely betray any emotion.

Decoding their cryptic dialogue is no cakewalk either. The downstage woman seems to be describing to the man every moment of some shadowy play about a woman sitting alone in the darkness describing her actions to a man. Of course, her description matches the play unfolding before us almost perfectly, right down to the mysterious voice emanating from the nearly invisible woman stage left. It seems the downstage woman is punishing the man by making him listen to her description–apparently he was supposed to meet her at the play and never showed up. He tries to beg off listening, but she always replies, “It’s too late. You’re in it now.” Gradually she reveals that the man in the play has been unfaithful to the woman in the play, as she accuses the man onstage of a similar indiscretion.

It’s a beguiling setup, but serious logical inconsistencies develop as the scene progresses. The man admits to going weekly to the theater the woman describes, yet he questions her every description as though he’s never seen the play. He also admits to being an actor, yet he can’t seem to understand how an audience might identify with actors sitting silently on a stage. Corwin’s puzzle begins to lose its intrigue.

But the real problem lies in his handling of the relationship between the man and the woman. All we know is that he cheated on her and lied about it. Attending to the intricate dynamics of his play within a play, Corwin has little time to dramatize his characters’ crisis. And while it’s apparently his intention to merely suggest their predicament, adding to the play’s mystery, unfortunately they’re a couple by proclamation only. Their crisis remains somewhat perfunctory, and the scene never develops any real stakes.

That problem recurs in the remaining two scenes, as new plays within plays illuminate new crumbling relationships. In the second scene, the same man and his roommate team up with two women, one of them the roommate’s girlfriend, to read a play the men have written. The play details lurid, embarrassing moments for the women, casting them as sex-driven worshipers of the very men putting words in their mouths. In the third scene, the women turn the tables on the men, creating an elaborate scheme that recasts the men in the women’s fantasy play.

Throughout, Corwin’s writing is economical and highly charged, and the five cast members deliver fine, understated performances (no director is named in the program). To his credit, Corwin resists obvious choices, aiming to dramatize self-destructive relationships through the most indirect of means, delving into the tiniest quirks of his characters’ minds, and focusing on seemingly inconsequential details in an effort to humanize his labyrinthine tale.

But in the end the script’s indirectness and gaps in time and logic are nearly insurmountable. The characters wind up seeming near strangers to one another. And though Corwin’s metatheatrical idea about people forcing others to play scripted roles in their lives is intriguing, he doesn’t give us much else to care about. Had he approached his characters’ relationships with the same exacting precision he accords his method, he might have created a gripping drama.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Isabel Raci.