Ripped From The Headlines
Playwright Jason Wells’ Men of Tortuga caused a buzz a couple of seasons ago at the Asolo Rep, with its blend of high tension and dark comedy; now the Chicago-based writer returns with Perfect Mendacity, another topical world premiere running May 15 through June 14 in the Cook Theatre. We spoke with Wells about this work and his craft.
Q. You started out as an actor, right? I came to Chicago from St. Louis in 1988 to be an actor and have been ever since. But when I went to Los Angeles for two years I first started writing, on screenplays. I got a tiny bit of attention for that and decided to come back to Chicago, where I got involved with the New Harmony Project [an Indiana-based artists’ community that nurtures new work]. I was supposed to be writing, so I felt the shame of not wanting to be a liar, and I started working on ideas for a play. I discovered my temperament is really better suited to being a writer than an actor, and I’ve identified myself as a writer ever since.
Q. Men of Tortuga and now Perfect Mendacity seem, to use a cliché, to be “ripped from the headlines” pieces. The news is a preoccupation of mine. But when I’m writing I can’t be too specific. For example, with Men of Tortuga I started out thinking about Enron, but by the time it was being produced, people were relating it to the Bush administration. And now when it’s done people think it’s more about the financial crisis. You can’t focus on a particular issue or name; it has to be more universal than that.
Q. Is Perfect Mendacity brand-new? [Asolo artistic director] Michael Edwards was the first to want to do it, but between the time he asked and the time it opens here, Steppenwolf called, and they did it this past summer in their First Look workshop series.
Q. So are you making changes from that version? One complete subplot was removed. Initially, I wanted to deal with the anthrax mailings in 2001; that was my starting point. But the play has evolved to where it’s not so much about that any more, so I pulled that, and the next day or so, they solved the anthrax case. Which made me look very smart.
Q. Is it hard to lose a scene? Do you get attached to the writing? You get attached, but it doesn’t break my heart. You’ve got to be open enough to know that when people are telling you something doesn’t work, they may be right. I eventually said, “If nobody thinks it’s great, it’s not achieving what it’s supposed to.”
Q. Will you be here be-
fore Perfect Mendacity opens? With Tortuga, I came during the rehearsal process. I’m not sure how much I’ll be involved in that this time around, but I’ll be there for the opening.
Q. What do you hope audiences will take away from Perfect Mendacity? Certainly to question things. Here’s a rather pedestrian example: One of the things that got me interested here was the subject of lie detectors. The assumption seems to be that they’re infallible, but the more I looked into it, I saw a lot of vagueness and contradiction. So it became worth exploring whether we as people can lie so hard, we lie to ourselves. In the case of the play and one of the characters, that’s really literal. You can tell a lie so well you can even deceive yourself.
Mostly I just want people to find my work interesting, entertaining, and to talk about it afterwards. Even if the work is pessimistic in tone, it can still be fun.
Q. Are you working on another project now as well? Yes, something political, but I was happy to be distracted from it to make changes to Perfect Mendacity.
Q. What do you do when you’re not writing? You’re asking the wrong person. I don’t get out of the house much. I spend a lot of time watching CNN and reading things that strike me as interesting. Plus watching movies with my wife and giving the cat her medicine.