What happens when catty people collide?
Transparent Theater’s “What Cats Know” is an intricate portrayal of four Chicago friends who like to destroy one anothers’ lives for fun. It has echoes of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” stamped into it indelibly.
Playwright Lisa Dillman has crafted four characters – Gregory, Cass, Therese and Kent – who all seem unable and unwilling to truly present themselves to one another. Therese is an alcoholic who’s old friends with Cass who lives with Kent. Therese is also in love with Cass and Cass doesn’t seem to mind. Therese, however, can’t act upon her feelings, and so continually badgers Cass to sleep with Therese’s best friend Gregory, a self-obsessed and randomly cruel artist – the most predatory and cat-like of them all.
Got all that? It seems like a lot to say all at once, but during the show relationships and patterns emerge at a natural, graceful pace. Ms. Dillman has packed her scenes with multiple layers of meaning, agendas and emotional risk. Her characters reveal themselves bit by bit and tend to misrepresent themselves as often as not in order to manipulate their friends.
In fact, Ms. Dillman has given her characters so many varying paths that it’s difficult to say why they even stay together. In Albee’s play two of his characters only have to bear that perverse cruelty for a night – these characters have been cruel to each other for years and continue that cruelty over the months of the play. The final dissolution of the group into private pairs feels both long overdue and still not damaging enough. How they even manage to maintain the private pairings after the emotional wreckage around them has grown so vast is never thoroughly conveyed. Ms. Dillman is a very talented playwright who never stoops to the sitcom trick of explaining every emotional nuance, but the emotional ties between characters and why they hold up is as murky at the end of the play as it was at the beginning.
Rebecca Ennals directs this fugue of relationship pain with the precision of a surgeon. Each scene is as self-contained and played as close to the vest as a hand of high-stakes poker. There are some awkward moments when power plays that are meant to be subtle appear brazen and adolescent. Luckily, these moments are few and are offset by tiny gems of honesty throughout the show. One moment with pool balls is a delight – and the closest thing to real caring in this show.
Katharine Dunlop is admirable as the stalwart Cass a woman who seems completely reactive to her friends’ machinations until she pursues Gregory. Steve Gallion as Cass’s lover Kent slowly unfurls throughout the show in a fine performance. Lissa Colleen Ferreira is pitch perfect as the erratic and wounded Therese. One of the perks of co-founding your own theater company is the ability to cast yourself in good roles. On the other hand, when it works, it works. Tom Clyde, co-founder of Transparent Theater, plays such an emotionally villainous Gregory that I wouldn’t be surprised if his friends look at him askance after this role.
All the actors seem at perfectly at home on Russ Milligan’s realistic set. Lorin King’s sound design echoes nicely with these emotionally bankrupt characters.
While this play doesn’t have the emotional charge or explosions of Albee’s work, its taut script and excellent cast lets it sink its claws in you – deep.