Theater » Theater Feature

Disappearing Ink

Memphis playwright Jon Devin makes his mark with Vanish Code.



It's all bullshit," says Jon Devin.

Devin, a local playwright, is responding to an audience member's question about the unique interpretation and application of quantum physics in his play Vanish Code, a tragic look at failed relationships and the soul-killing psychology of "the closet." He laughs nervously and slaps his thigh at the very thought of anyone taking his pseudoscience seriously. "What can I say? I grew up in the '70s and I watched a lot of Star Trek," he continues. "If you were trying to [solve the mystery] by scribbling notes in your program, you were just wasting your time."

If, however, you were just sitting back and allowing Devin's interesting, if still immature, work to wash over you, you were not wasting a thing. Though Vanish Code appears to be informed by pulp authors like Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy and in serious need of trimming and fine-tuning, it is an above-average debut and a blueprint for other young authors too caught up in "the personal" to develop any public appeal.

Playwrights' Forum, an organization that Devin has worked closely with over the years, has revised its traditionally minimal approach to performance in order to give this play a proper christening. Director Leigh Ann Evans, who has blossomed as a director in the past few years, manages to keep things engaging even when the script breaks down. Evans seems to do her best work with plays where dialogue stands in lieu of action. Is Devin pleased with the production? "Everything is exactly the way I imagined it," he says, rolling his eyes in bewilderment, "except for the drapes."

The overwhelming bulk of neophyte dramatists are tied to a boring kitchen-sink aesthetic, and they typically fall into two categories: A) ax-grinders with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and B) whiners who continue to tell us how heartbreaking it is to be: 1) an artist and misunderstood, 2) gay and misunderstood, 3) not a Caucasian male and misunderstood, or 4) a gay artist, not a Caucasian male, and misunderstood. Vanish Code, which is at its core a meditation on "relationships" (YAWN) and sexual identity, falls squarely into category B.2. But by creating an unexpected and surprisingly effective metaphor for friends and lovers we have lost and by couching this metaphor in the context of a classic potboiler, Devin has transcended the category. He has likewise successfully skewered the media, specifically television news, for its ability to reduce a human life to a sound bite sandwiched between sports highlights and fashion hints. On the downside, there is little sense of musicality in the pedestrian, so-are-you-dating-anybody dialog, which results in tedious blocks of conversation that neither drive the story nor develop character.

Vanish Code is set in a fearful Atlanta. Four men have turned up missing, with only one unifying link. At some point, they have all known, and in some cases loved, a youngish law professor crippled emotionally by his secret sexual life and physically by an automobile accident that robbed him of his best friend. He becomes increasingly paranoid that somehow he is responsible for the disappearances, that something he said or did in the past set the wheels in motion. To find out if this is true, he enlists the aid of a somewhat shady physics professor who has converted quantum mechanics into a system of numerology and uses it as a tool for divination.

Brian Mott is especially effective as the lawyer, becoming more sympathetic even as his character becomes more delusional. He makes the show's pat "somebody's gonna get shot" ending work even though it shouldn't. Mott's performance is rivaled only by Mary Buchignani's pitch-perfect take on the tabloid telecaster, and the remainder of the cast manage to collectively bring more to their characters than what was provided for them.

Vanish Code plays like an amateur playwright's last amateur endeavor before taking the big step to better things. If Devin is able to use this production as a tool to refine his work, creating greater focus and clarity while eliminating much of the chitchat, it could easily become a better thing.

Vanish Code is at TheatreWorks through Saturday, June 15th.

Theatre Memphis celebrates its 500th show.

Theatre Memphis has hit an impressive milestone: its 500th mainstage production. To celebrate, on Thursday, June 13th, TM will host a gala event featuring cocktails, fine dining, desserts, and an all-star performance of Kaufman and Hart's perennial favorite The Man Who Came To Dinner. Performers include the always-excellent Bennett Wood, the creatively cantankerous John Rone, and the more-often-than-not magnificent Jo Malin, all of whom starred in TM's last production of The Man Who Came To Dinner some 25 years ago. While this would be the perfect time for what was once the flagship of Memphis community theater to look ahead to the next 500 shows with a production that is daring, original, and immediately appealing to the preretirement set it desperately needs to court, you can't complain too much about either this dream cast or K&H's divine comedic skills -- or cocktails or dessert, for that matter.

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