Theater Review (NYC): I Used to Write on Walls by Bekah Brunstetter

The prolific Bekah Brunstetter has written another fine play, and this time I can say that without any caveats. I Used to Write on Walls is funny, deep, innovative, and affecting on several levels. Brunstetter’s central skill of creating painfully real female characters is truly put to the test in this play, where there are seven of them and no ensemble scenes. She not only meets but surpasses her own test.

A lonely, fat policewoman, a suicidally insecure makeup artist, and a beautiful spoken-word performer all fall for a California surfer dude (Jeff Berg) who’s in New York City on a “rad, rad philosophical journey” to right humanity’s wrongs. Immature, untrustworthy, and stupid, the ridiculous Trevor is plainly nobody’s Mr. Right. Yet with an easy charm, good looks, and a few sweet words, he divests the women of their judgment as easily as he gets them out of their clothes.

Even Georgia (Levita Shaurice), the sharp, self-aware poet, can’t help wanting more from Trevor than he is obviously prepared to give. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the overweight, 34-year-old Diane (Maggie Hamilton, with exquisite comic timing) falls for his sweet-talk. Or that self-hating Joanne (Darcie Champagne), whose debilitating anxiety visibly quivers just under her bubbly surface, clings, literally for dear life, to his childish optimism.

Trevor may be a two- and three-timing Lothario, and worse, but Berg invests the difficult role with a raw, scabrous humanity. His stereotypical faux-clever pronouncements and absurd insensitivity make us laugh as easily as he makes the women melt. When Joanne confesses, “I was gonna kill myself, right before we met,” his fascinated response is, “Really? How?”

But when he meets his match, in the person of the overripe, nutty, and possibly dangerous Mona (Ellen David), the blubbering little boy within is revealed. On stage a great deal of the time, Berg makes Trevor an entertaining and, against all odds, very human villain. The real enemy, Brunstetter is telling us, is the pressure women put on themselves to be and look perfect, and the too-often impossible dream of matching what you want with what you have.

Yet the playwright doesn’t heavy-handedly blame “society” or “male-dominated culture” for her women’s plight. Each in her own way, the women reveal their weaknesses; they are fully realized people at the mercy of a complexity of forces, some programmed right into their own natures.

Rachel Dorfman and Mary Round are very good in mother roles, and Chelsey Shannon persuades as eleven-year-old Anna, who represents, in a magical-realist sort of way, how women – at least in Brunstetter’s convincing vision – start out life: on one level, pure and innocent, but already bearing the ova of corrupton and disappointment. From Anna’s mother’s heartbreakingly funny toss-off line – “Don’t look directly at me, it burns” – through Diane’s sad and hilarious voicemail confession, the Fellini-esque tableau at the end of Act I, Trevor’s breakdown, and Georgia’s genuinely poetic, Chorus-like coda, I Used to Write on Walls is the work of a playwright coming into full mastery.

Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 27 at the Gene Frankel Theatre Underground, 24 Bond St. between Lafayette and Bowery, NYC. Tickets online or call 212-868-4444. Mature language and themes.