Navy Pier

Wax Lips Theatre Company

at Strawdog Theatre

By Nick Green

When one of the characters in John Corwin’s Navy Pier describes air hockey in maxims that might have been culled from Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, he magnifies a simple game into an intense, complex battle of skill, wit, and determination. Wax Lips Theatre Company’s production similarly conceals a complicated world beneath its modest staging and design. But this brand of minimalism is not the type that suggests a lack of resources or time; on the contrary, it’s a constant and deliberate reminder that things aren’t as simple as they seem.

In Wax Lips, coartistic director Corwin’s second work, four characters attempt to find the truth buried under a tangled network of lies and excuses through a series of alternating and sometimes intercut monologues. But it’s a slow and arduous process. Characters dispute the simplest facts. Memories prove to be distorted. And by the play’s end, the truth is no longer universal–it’s been reduced to four fractured perceptions of the truth, each of which is equally true and false.

Celebrated writer Kurt Mitchell is an old college friend of unsuccessful writer Martin. Both are prodigiously talented and dream of immortality, but the shallow egomaniac Kurt has risen to prominence with the publication of his first short story while Martin has grown more introverted and less confident as a result of his former friend’s successes. Kurt is also the victor on a second front: he’s successfully wooed Martin’s girlfriend, an elementary-school art teacher named Iris, and persuaded her to move to New York with him. Overcome by jealousy and grief, Martin boards a one-way flight to San Francisco, where he meets Liv, a bartender, and surreptitiously assumes Kurt’s identity. Martin has stolen Kurt’s name, but Kurt has taken something of far greater value from Martin, his voice: as the end of Navy Pier reveals, there’s something deeply sinister about Kurt’s success.

To tell this kind of story in conflicting nonlinear monologues is pretty tough to pull off. It’s unsettling to see characters occupy the same small space while barely acknowledging one another’s presence. With the exception of a few brief exchanges, the characters address the audience. But director Joshua Neds-Fox cleverly justifies breaking the fourth wall by staging the play as an implicit tribunal, with the audience as the unwitting jury. Seated on bar stools around the back of the stage, the four characters are given equal focus and equal opportunity to plead their cases. As for the dearth of interaction between them, neither Corwin nor Wax Lips makes apologies for the play’s artifice. And Navy Pier unfolds so slowly and subtly that it easily keeps our attention for two hours.

Corwin is remarkably impartial in his approach to the characters, turning them inside out, exposing their weaknesses as well as their strengths: they’re as reprehensible as they are innocent, and as a result eminently lifelike. And Corwin’s intimate knowledge of them gives the script authenticity. Navy Pier is chock-full of moments that make the mundane both instantly recognizable and profound, as when Liv describes a hotel room as a constant reminder of where you aren’t, or Kurt describes a painfully slow car ride to New York by grumbling that Iris drove like Willy Loman.

The entire cast delivers strong performances, though Brendan Hunt displays the greatest emotional range as Martin, restraining his frustration and anger until they reach the boiling point. Kurt Reynolds’s smarmy, nauseatingly repugnant Kurt is brimming with bravado and hubris, and Ericka Kreutz’s wayward Iris and Anita Deely’s tender but misguided Liv are every bit as engaging. With a minimum of set pieces and light cues, set and lighting designer John Stark creates an appropriately spartan arena whose symmetry echoes Corwin’s evenhanded approach to the characters. Karen Kawa’s costume design is also simple but telling: while most of the cast wear drab gray and beige, the character most removed from and least sullied by the conflict, Liv, is dressed in purple.

Instead of producing yet another tiresome spate of unfocused sniveling and slacker angst, Corwin explores such fundamental themes as the unpredictable nature of relationships and the fine line between friendly rivalry and bitter competition. Many young theater companies make the mistake of burying their productions in excess. But Wax Lips, in its fourth show, hits all the bases with simple yet solid acting, direction, and technical design. It seems the key is understatement.