What do cats know that humans don’t? “When it’s time to get out,” explains a character in What Cats Know, a Lisa Dillman play making its West Coast premiere at Transparent Theater. The rather depressing if often witty story features four thirtysomethings who don’t know when to get out — of friendships, love relationships, and the hurtful games that arise between unhappy people. Billed as a comedy, it takes an unsentimental look at a group of so-called friends hung about with the all-too-familiar trappings of our age — biological clocks, brooding artists, the impact of childhood abuse, low self-image, and so on.
Cats revolves around aimless textbook editor Cass, a woman who keeps telling people that they don’t know her as well as they think. Though self-conscious about her weight, she’s very pretty, and she’s tired of the one-dimensional image people have of her as a result. Unfortunately, Dillman’s script doesn’t spell out why we should think any differently. Katharine Dunlop does her best to inject some slyness into Cass, but it’s late in the game before we see how clever she really is. Cass’ universe consists of hopelessly square computer programmer boyfriend Kent (Steve Gallion), best friend Therese (the arch Lissa Colleen Ferreira), and Therese’s painter friend Gregory (Tom Clyde). All of the action takes place in Cass and Kent’s apartment, which swiftly becomes claustrophobic with clove cigarettes, alcohol-soaked maneuverings, and lies of various shapes and sizes.
There’s a sense that none of these people really like each other. Gregory and Therese have a long-term friendship that is as much a balance of terror as anything else; Cass and Kent need each other badly but don’t seem to take inspiration in each other’s company, and why Therese and Cass are friends is an utter mystery. Gregory’s obsession with painting Cass — or seducing her; he himself seems unsure which is better — sets in motion a series of tests that will try every strand in the friends’ delicate web. The cumulative result is while each of these characters is familiar, the stakes never really seem that high. Perhaps that’s the point: even faced with glaring proof of Cass’ duplicity, Kent doggedly refuses to confront it, and we understand that everyone is just going to go on with their lives, growing ever more bitter and distrustful.
The staging is uneven. While Russ Milligan’s set design works well to indicate a blandly pleasant apartment, and the costumes serve as a visual shorthand (the “nice” people in light colors, the “mean” ones in dark), the overlong blackouts between scenes make this play seem a lot longer than it is. It’s also very hard to tell when the story is over — it’s as though Dillman couldn’t decide which of the last few scenes was the strongest, so she left them all in. Again, this could be deliberate — in the real world, she might be saying, our little stories are a series of inconclusive endings. Unlike cats, we don’t know when to get out. Shotgun’s Medea mesmerizes, while