At first it seemed the Independent had leased out the lobby of Manbites Dog Theater for its office relocation last week. The theater’s cozy front room was a maze of cardboard U-Haul boxes, stacked nearly floor to ceiling.

But the big difference between the packages I’d glimpsed on Hillsborough Road and these was in the candor of the labels. One prominent carton read “my need to be liked by everyone”; the largest containers in the room were marked “ego” and “guilt.”

Contrasting this transient order was the absolute disarray of Derrick Ivey, Eddy Shipman and Lance Waycaster’s set in the theater proper, built for both hands theatre’s exactly what t(w)o do. Its almost total clutter was meant to symbolize the dozens of unaddressed issues scattered through two unnamed women’s past. In another light, it represented thousands of meaningless tchotchkes consumer culture comes up with to weigh us down.

Unfortunately, the chaos ultimately came to resemble this work’s similarly disordered plot as well.

Thursday night’s audience was listening closest when exactly focused on the plight of two professional women (company founders Cheryl Chamblee and Tamara Kissane), whose careers don’t leave time for their own one-time friendship. Knowing laughter (and sudden silence) in the audience accompanied the characters’ chilling observation that they’re so preoccupied with what’s in front of them that there’s no time to think about who they will be 10 years from now, or who they were 10 years before.

But the work lost significant focus and momentum on becoming snarled in this couple’s infinitely unfinished prior emotional business. Were the two trying to finally sever all binding ties to achieve a final, separate peace? Were they trying to repair a former common dwelling for possible rehabitation? When too much of the play seemed like wallowing, the small space the two cleared out seemed an inadequateand unclearpayoff.

exactly what t(w)o do

both hands theatre
Manbites Dog Theater
Closed Dec. 16

Though it was more difficult to follow the spoken-word counterpoint that is this group’s signature style here than in earlier works, Chamblee and Kissane’s self-generated script still scored significantly when it voiced the words of grown-up children, sad but not yet wise. The near Seuss-like pride the two took in all-important calendars and checklists inevitably gave way to more poignant pleas. “Out of everyone you have seen the most of me. Now you don’t see me at all,” one lamented. The other’s desperate, responding request? “Let’s be far apart now.”

Adam Sampieri’s layered guitar work provided tasteful counterpoint to the proceedings, and Dierdre Shipman’s power suits for both were amusingly negated by the animal masks she created for their self-imposed time-outs. Jason Klarl’s atmospheric black-and-white super-8 filmsthreaded and shown in real-time on ancient projectors on stageeffectively portrayed memories of domestic incompetence and bliss.

But if this couple’s room needs a professional organizer, the playwrights’ script needs professional editing. At this point, exactly what t(w)o do is about consumerism and a corporate culture that eviscerates the possibility of a robust personal life. Unfortunately, it’s also about warfare between women, and the dilemma of two people who have too much of a past to salvage or walk away from.

One or two of these plotlines would fund a full evening’s work. I’m afraid that when they’re superimposed upon each other here they often make more mess than message.

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