Friday, June 29, 2007



June 29, 2007 -- THE acclaimed downtown theater troupe the Civilians demonstrates its unique melding of documentary and experimental theater with "Gone Missing," a meditation on all things lost and found that makes up for its occasional lapses with lots of sly humor.

Based on interviews conducted by company members, it boasts an eclectic and tuneful score by Obie winner Michael Friedman, whose music can also be heard in the Public Theater's "Romeo and Juliet" in Central Park.

The six-member cast, clad in identical bland gray suits, delivers a series of songs and monologues relating either directly or tangentially to things that have been lost, from a black Gucci pump to the mythical city of Atlantis to one's mind.

The staging is decidedly stylized, with the performers frequently engaging in choreography reminiscent of an old Devo video.

If it sounds a bit precious, well, it occasionally is. But the breeziness of the proceedings and the unexpected emotional force generated by many of the segments more than compensate.

I found myself rather perversely looking forward to the recurring appearances by Stephen Plunkett as a cop who describes in hilariously gory detail the corpses he encounters at work.

Other memorable moments are provided by Colleen Werthmann, as a mother describing the loss of her child's sock doll, and Emily Ackerman, as a psychic who specializes in finding lost pets.

The piece was conceived after the events of 9/11, which is reflected in the haunting final image that follows a historian's account of the calamitous collapse of a banquet hall in ancient Greece.


Thursday, June 28, 2007


By Leonard Jacobs

My sixth-grade graduation photo, which I haven’t seen in years, is easy for me to recall because I was wearing my favorite jacket—a late-’70s checkered-green number that I hated growing out of. For ultra-sentimentalists like me, The Civilians’ Gone Missing makes you wonder why we hold on so tightly to certain objects, why we mourn the objects we lose or must part with. As an affectingly off-kilter sketch-and-song revue, Gone Missing sweeps you up in a tight, clearheaded embrace—one with a cynical view of nostalgia.

As in all of The Civilians’ pieces, Gone Missing is a joint effort; it was first presented in 2001 and seems to have been in a continuous state of revision and revisitation ever since. The writing is credited to chief Civilian Steve Cosson, based on interviews with real New Yorkers talking about things they have lost: an errant Gucci pump tucked into the secret flap of a handbag, a platinum necklace, a PalmPilot emptied out of a man’s hand during the WTC’s collapse. Other stories are considerably grislier, weirder and stranger: the once-rookie cop vividly describing the decomposing human body, the scientist’s theory of the lost continent of Atlantis, the sock doll retrieved from a garbage dump during an Iowa snowstorm, the war stories of a plucky pet psychic.

Six actors—Emily Ackerman, Damian Baldet, Jennifer R. Morris, Stephen Plunkett, Robbie Collier Sublett and Colleen Werthmann—play all the anonymous interviewees, and there is at times a bit of déjà vu. Yes, you have seen this kind of work before, whether in the United States Theater Project’s Columbinus or the Tectonic Theater Company’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project.

The difference between those shows and Gone Missing, however, is those shows turned colossal events, like hate crimes and mass murder, into electrifying coups de theatre; it’s not the same thing to dramatize the loss of a ring or the loss of a sizable bequest from a dear 98-year-old uncle. Nor is it possible to raise the stakes quite the same way when the loss connects to the ineffable, intangible things we can never replace once lost: our virginity and dignity, our sense of values, self and hope.

This is why, aside from providing a divertissement from all the monologues and vignettes, the nine songs penned by Michael Friedman prove among the most insightful Gone Missing moments. Vocally, the six actors may be unevenly matched, but the overt messages contained in the songs are delivered with brash self-confidence and constant brio; Cosson’s stylized staging is what finally lifts the show fully out of the box. Strongly melodic, lyrically acid, songs like “The Only Thing Missing Is You,” “I Gave It Away,” “Lost Horizon” and “Etch a Sketch” take you out of that grim state of pondering you’ve fallen into, elevating your spirits as you begin to realize that that checkered-green jacket was really just a jacket—that it’s your memories you ought to be holding onto instead.


Gone Missing

Barrow Street Theatre. Written and directed by Steven Cosson. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. With ensemble cast. 1hr 15mins. No intermission.

One is at a loss, at first, to describe exactly what makes Gone Missing so unforgettable. Admittedly, many of the virtues of the Civilians’ philosophical vaudeville—an investigation of nostalgia from the inside out—are immediately apparent. The text of the play, mostly assembled by company demiurge Steven Cosson from interviews conducted by his troupe, is a lavishly suggestive collection of vignettes about misplaced objects and the displaced emotions that rise in their wake. This montage of ever-present absence is brought to sleek life onstage by a protean cast of six, all of whom deserve mention: Emily Ackerman, Damian Baldet, Jennifer R. Morris, Stephen Plunkett, Robbie Collier Sublett and Colleen Werthmann. And then there are the dazzling pastiche-makes-perfect songs of Michael Friedman, which span styles from German lieder to Tin Pan Alley, Buena Vista Social Club, Burt Bacharach and Suzanne Vega. (The gorgeous, Aimee Mann–ish “Lost Horizons” went straight to my head and the headphones of my iPod.)

Yet no mere catalog of the show’s selling points can do justice to its overall effect. Some of the stories involve the seemingly insignificant disappearance of small objects; others treat the loss of graver things like language, parts of dead bodies and, in Friedman’s songs, romantic attachment. These disparate tales are crafted into a mosaic whose abstract design is visible from afar, yet whose constituent parts retain their particularity. At once erudite and democratic, Gone Missing is not merely a witty, quick-footed and entertaining evening of theater; it is also a finely tuned inquiry into the nature of memory that manages to be forward-looking at the same time. Gone Missing’s links between past and present provide clear evidence of evolution in the world of modern theater. Miss it and weep.


Finding Love and Loss in ‘Gone Missing'

by Eric Grode

Audiences in search of downtown theater at its most probing and accessible now know where to find it.

With "Gone Missing," a hilarious paean to things lost and (occasionally) recovered, the intrepid theater collective known as the Civilians — making its commercial off-Broadway debut after numerous stints at smaller spaces in New York and worldwide — takes the psychological pulse of America by listing its absences: what it has lost, what it still seeks, what it has somehow learned to live without.

Like Anna Deavere Smith and the Tectonic Theater Project, the Civilians assemble plays by conducting interviews — in this case, asking people about something they've lost. Unlike those other documentary-theatre practitioners, however, the Civilians acknowledge their own role in the assembly. Many interviewees try to expand the parameters of the question and discuss losing a spouse or a job rather than a physical object. This apparently runs afoul of the ground rules, except when it doesn't. The Civilians are not above bending their own rules if the story is good enough. And many of these stories are very good: sad, sweet, goofy, and unapologetically poignant.

Everything from a black Gucci pump to a child's beloved sock puppet to human body parts have gone AWOL for the cross-section of Americans interviewed by the company members, who then converted the anecdotes into the show's revue-style format. (Steven Cosson, who also directed "Gone Missing," is credited with writing the final script, which has been expanded since its original 2003 run at the Belt Theater.) The group also mixes in a series of clever and deceptively low-key pastiche songs by the downtown-darling composer Michael Friedman, sung by all six cast members. (Colleen Werthmann and Robbie Collier Sublett are first among equals in a marvelously balanced cast that also includes Emily Ackerman, Damian Baldet, Jennifer R. Morris, and Stephen Plunkett.)

This blend of pathos and semiironic glitz starts out a bit uneasily, as all six suit-clad performers execute ultrastylized, David Byrne-esque dance moves while individuals splinter off with laments to lost dogs, teeth, and Beanie Babies. But the actors soon settle into Mr. Cosson's offkilter cadences and vault into a multilayered exploration of the things we leave behind and the impossibility of recovering them. "Unless it's nailed on you or hanging off of you," warns one elderly woman, "hold on to it because it all goes."

Some characters dream of being lost themselves. Some — a homicide cop, a pet psychic — make a living out of locating things or people. Others, such as a consultant who provides tough love to "disposeaphobics," aids in the act of getting rid of things. Some find whatever it is they're looking for. Most do not. (And on those rare happy instances, don't think for a minute that a band of off-off-Broadway mischief makers can't or won't make you cry.)

With its rapid-fire sketch format and array of foreign accents, "Gone Missing" feels at times like an existential "Laugh-In." Mr. Cosson frequently sets up parallel narratives by interweaving three or four stories in a fuguelike blend, and the performers all take turns stimulating a dialogue between the overeager host of an NPR-style program and a wry academic about the Freudian and mythological underpinnings of nostalgia: "Sometimes we need to lose something before we can enjoy it."

Unsurprisingly, some memories resonate more deeply than others, and some of the more far-flung songs come off as extraneous. (Songs in both Spanish and German?) But Mr. Friedman makes up for it with a ballad sung by Ms. Werthmann about melancholy childhood games of hide-and-seek:

I lost the fourth grade journal
and the sweatshirt that was ruined
when I hid inside the closet
and knocked my mother's perfume from the shelf
and smelled for weeks like I was going somewhere.

In unearthing a collective wellspring of long-submerged memories, along with the attendant remorse, nostalgia, and even relief, the Civilians have created a work to be cherished. "Gone Missing" is tender, joyous, wistful, and wonderful. Now that it has found its way back to New York, do not let it get away.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Losers with winning ways

by Michael Sommers


NEW YORK -- A whimsical docu-show -- enlivened by some witty songs -- "Gone Missing" is all about losing things. Heirlooms. Keys. Pets. Virginity. Even your mind.

Drawn from interviews with actual New Yorkers by members of The Civilians, a company that creates original works based on real-life topics, "Gone Missing" opened on Sunday at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Mostly light in tone, the amusing text written and fleetly staged by Steven Cosson offers an enjoyable collage of conversational ex changes, monologues, anecdotes and musical numbers regarding disappeared people, possessions and what-have-you.

"Could I talk about losing a husband?" wonders one older woman. "Because I would certainly have a lot to say on that subject."

A cop reminiscing about the lost items he's found -- primarily body parts -- and an executive driving her friends nuts as she obsessively hunts for a missing Gucci pump are among the few characters who appear intermittently through the 75-minute proceed ings.

Much of the usually quirky material involves scatter-shot observations by more than two dozen individuals, from a pet psychic to a mom fondly recalling the time her husband unearthed their youngest daughter's sock doll from a dumpster.

Occasionally these matters are arranged by themes, such as a sequence when three women talk about jewelry that went astray.

A chat between a radio talk- show host and a writer about his latest book delves into less everyday matters like the lost continent of Atlantis and the power of nostal gia for long-gone things.

Dressed in virtually identical gray business suits and neckties, a six-member ensemble ably as sumes different accents and atti tudes for the individuals they por tray.

Composer Michael Friedman interlaces the show with nifty songs created in contrasting pop modes. "The Only Thing Missing Is You" is a mocking torch number wailed under a mirror ball. "Hide & Seek" is a Melanie-style ballad. "La Bodega" deals with a missing wallet in mariachi music.

Designer Takeshi Kata's simple backdrop and bubbling effects in Ken Travis' soundscape are no doubt derived from mentions in the text of the Sargasso Sea, where lost objects reportedly pop up among the weeds, driftwood and eels.

Although "Gone Missing" may not venture deeply enough into its fascinating subject, The Civilians' cool, classy interpretation of their findings still packs quite a bit of thoughtful entertainment.

Michael Sommers may be reached at msommers@starled or at (212) 790-4434.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Gone Missing

By Summer Banks

I’m an Etch a Sketch (but now I’m all shook up)/ I’m a piece of wax (but now the imprint’s lost) --from the song "Etch a Sketch" on what it’s like to be a person who’s lost his or her memory.

We’re all afraid of loosing things: our keys, our passports, our pets, our spouses, our minds. And so we try desperately to keep track of them, labeling hooks for our keys and drawers for our scissors, and leashing our pets and our spouses. But in spite of our best attempts, our labeling and leashing only cause us to loose them more quickly.

The same is true of the theater. As soon as we try to label or leash it, its value and spirit are lost. This is the philosophy on display in Gone Missing, the Civilians’ play with music, musical play, cabaret, musical experience, experimental small-cast musical. Created in 2003 from interviews conducted by company members, this 70-minute one-act has been massaged into songs, monologues and coordinated trios, making for a vividly entertaining night out.

Avoiding the perils of some non-fictional theater which makes the point of labeling itself "documentary" and treating its material as if it were in a museum, Gone Missing is composed of research distilled into organically connected impressions of its rather broad subject—lost items. The "items" range from jewelry to a shoe; pets to a stuffed sock-animal; war to the lost island of Atlantis. The material initially tries to stick to inanimate objects but as people begin to talk about boyfriends, sanity and religion , it quickly becomes clear that most of our feelings of loss are not really about the items themselves.

Structurally, the play follows an emotional arc through a range of compelling musings on loss and brief interludes with fascinating characters: a French lesbian, a pet psychic, and a brusque technician who works with disposeaphobics™. Don’t expect much of a plot since harnessing this material to a story line would make it seem much less profound and fresh than it actually is. Like the individually flash frozen portions at Trader Joes, the monologues, interwoven speeches and musical numbers each tell their own story, encapsulating a flavor that melds remarkably well with the whole. As this is an organic piece of work, it has spots that are not as polished as the pretty, waxed, and yet flavorless Red Delicious apples sold along Broadway, but that is part of its charm.

The songs are catchy, varying stylistically from standard musical theater to German lieder. They are performed with panache with the small band at the side of the stage creating an intimate jazz club ambiance that's remarkable given the size of the space. Stand out numbers include "Etch a Sketch," "Lost Horizon" and the titular "Gone Missing" which is still stuck in my head.

From the accuracy and charm with which the ensemble plays off the rhythms of the piece it's obvious that they are familiar with the material and one another. The set is basically non-existent and the gray-suit uniforms that serve as costumes evoke Manhattan’s financial district and highlight one of Gone Missing's most affecting monologues by a security guard at the World Trade Center who lost his Palm Pilot. He relates how he was directed to secure the baseball field for the secret service as the towers were coming down. Like many of the other recollections, this story succeeds in resonating with themes much deeper than materialistic loss.

It is the connection to universal ideals that makes Gone Missing feel more real than most naturalistic plays. It is also why any attempt to label it falls short of encapsulating its nature. This is a philosophical play about lost shoes and also a cabaret with love songs. Ultimately it’s just theater, blissfully free from the restrictions of definition.


Gone Missing

by Dan Bacalzo

Combining elements of performance art, documentary theater, and musicals, the Civilians' Gone Missing is a wildly funny and marvelously inventive meditation on things lost and sometimes found -- from a beloved pet dog, to a treasured ring, to one's mind. The tone of the piece is sometimes whimsical, sometimes ironic, and at times even quite serious and thought-provoking. Certain sections appear to be verbatim transcripts of interviews, while others seem more fictionalized, or at the very least exaggerated for comic effect.

This unusual show features a script by director Steven Cosson, based upon interviews conducted by company members, as well as a terrific score from Michael Friedman. It originally debuted shortly after September 11, 2001 when the theme of loss had a rather pronounced resonance. It played to critical acclaim at the Belt Theater in 2003, and has since toured extensively before coming back to New York to make its summer home at the Barrow Street Theatre.

For this limited engagement, three members of the original cast -- Damian Baldet, Jennifer R. Morris, and Colleen Werthmann -- are joined by Emily Ackerman, Stephen Plunkett, and Robbie Collier Sublett, all of whom have been with the project at least since its 2006 incarnation at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville. While the entire cast makes for a tight ensemble, Ackerman and Plunkett are the clear stand-outs. Ackerman has a mesmerizing presence and ability to bring her characters to vivid life, whether it's a pet psychic or an arthritic old woman identified in the script as "Great Aunt." Plunkett shines as the recurring character of a police officer, who talks about finding dead bodies. His portrayal is genial and grounded, even as the actor brings out the dark humor of the material when describing the most grisly details of the cop's line of work.

The remaining cast members all have terrific moments, as well. Sublett is at his best as an Englishman who talks about a time when he lost language. Werthmann is rather moving as a mother who recalls an instance when one of her daughters lost a tiny sock doll named "Sniffle" and the family's quest to find it. Morris is amusing as a woman named Laura whose attempts to find her misplaced Gucci pump borders on the obsessive (and may actually cross over). Baldet is perhaps the weakest performer, and his attempt to cross gender lines to play an elderly woman is one of the production's few missteps. Still, he functions well in the ensemble sequences, and often provides guitar accompaniment for other cast members.

In addition, a trio of musicians on piano, bass, and drums give life to Friedman's eclectic score under the supervision of music director Andy Boroson. The catchy title song is reminiscent of 80s pop, reinforced by Jim Augustine's choreography that seems lifted out of a Devo video.

The salsa-flavored "La Bodega," with Plunkett on lead vocals, is another highlight, as is the pop ballad "Lost Horizon," sweetly sung by Sublett. None of the actors are vocal powerhouses, but they're all able to sell their songs and the occasional off-pitch note is forgivable.

Friedman's lyrics are frequently hilarious, with lines such as "Think what my nephew Chris/Just lost at his Bris" from Ackerman's solo, "The Only Thing Missing is You." He also keys in ideas from the various scenes and monologues seen throughout the show that reinforce certain thematic concerns of the piece. For example, a recurring motif within Gone Missing is "An interview with Dr. Palinurus" that has various company members taking on the roles of a noted historian and the radio personality he speaks with. They discuss Atlantis, nostalgia, and the Platonian ideal, all of which find their way into Friedman's songs.

The piece concludes with a recording of the Palinurus interview, voiced by guest artists Nina Hellman and T. Ryder Smith. It plays against a striking visual image -- one that dynamically demonstrates how certain objects can have a palpable presence, while at the same time evoking what is no longer there.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Gone Missing

Off-Broadway Listings
June 14-20, 2007

Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St at Seventh Ave South (212-239-6200). Subway: 1 to Christopher St-Sheridan Sq. $20-$45. Tue-Fri 7:30pm; Sat 2:30, 7:30pm; Sun 5pm.

The Civilians, one of the city's smartest and most original troupes, leaps Off Broadway with a reprise of this justly acclaimed 2003 collage about loss. The scripts, based on interviews, is by Civilians head honcho Steve Cosson, who also directs a highly promising cast of six; the eclectic songs are by Michael Friedman.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Gone Missing

Opening & In Previews

by Alexis Soloski

When this Civilians' documentary-musical debuted, we remarked, "The art of losing things isn't hard to master. But few could expect a more masterful comedy on the subject of lost-and-found than Gone Missing. Based on copius, half-remembered interviews, the six-member company presents a collage of all that New Yorkers have mislaid or escaped. Missing Missing cannot be endorsed." Happily, Gone Missing has been located and revived for a commercial run at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2:30 & 7:30pm, Sun 5pm. Previews begin Thu, opens June 24, thru Aug 5, $20-$45. Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow, 212-239-6200.


Friday, June 1, 2007

The not-ready-for-Broadway playwrights

Give the Great White Way a rest and head downtown, where a bevy of brilliant young dramatists are creating the city’s most original theater.

Photographs by Peter Bellamy

The past few months have been hard on American playwrights. In April, the Pulitzer committee decided not to award a prize for drama. The New York Drama Critics’ Circle found no homegrown work worth lauding when it doled out its awards May 23. Lisa Kron’s critically acclaimed but publicly underappreciated Well closed after playing to two-thirds-empty houses. Come June 11, odds are The History Boys—a veddy English school dramedy written by a 72-year-old Yorkshireman—will snag the Tony for Best Play. All this in a season in which three Irish works (Faith Healer, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Shining City) dyed the Great White Way distinctly green. The noble calling of literary giants such as Miller, O’Neill and Williams is dead, right?

Don’t believe it. Just as the Grammys and Oscars aren’t barometers of musical and cinematic taste, the Tonys and Pulitzer won’t necessarily tell you what’s worth following in theater. But we will. The ink-stained talents collected here are young and hungry. None of them is the greatest living American scribe (that plaque goes to Albee, Mamet or Kushner,take your pick). They’re not even among the upstarts who’ve generated the most coverage (sorry, Adam Rapp, Rinne Groff, Will Eno and Lynn Nottage). But they’re producing the most stimulating work in town—and they’re why this is a great time to go and see a downtown show.—David Cote

Mysterious ways
Lose yourself in Washburn if... you swoon for Sofia Coppola’s dreamy filmmaking, wish that Björk would star in more movies and devour Haruki Murakami novels.

Anne Washburn, 38, poster child of both the Civilians and the DIY playwrights collective 13P, can be a tough writer to pin down: One minute she’s confiding ghost stories (Apparition), and the next she’s introducing historical she-monsters to each other (The Ladies), only to follow it all up with a fish-out-of-water fable, half spoken in gibberish (The Internationalist). But what her pieces have in common is the way she captures her characters’ discombobulation, whether due to travel, the supernatural or some dizzying postmodern device. Her plays, steeped in the disorienting techniques of nonnarrative giants like the Wooster Group, nonetheless have strong stories at their core. The resulting juxtapositions are provoking, mysterious and rich with her sense that, as she puts it,“we are surrounded by things we can’t see, can’t control and can’t understand.” Her next work, I Have Loved Strangers, a lyrical investigation of false and true prophets, materializes at the Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festival (at the Ohio Theatre, Sunday 4–June 10), while The Internationalist will pack its bags for a much-deserved Off Broadway run at the Vineyard this October. —Helen Shaw

Documentary shredder
Cosson is on your brain-wavelength if... you enjoy the referential layering of Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings, the eclectic Readings section of Harper’s and the gently off-center observational wit of NPR’s This American Life.

When explaining the work that he has created for the Civilians, the red-hot theater troupe he founded in 2001, Steven Cosson tends to end his sentences with mild question marks, as if everything might be up for revision. Such contingency is at the core of the playwright-director’s most recent shows, 2003’s Gone Missing and 2004’s (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch: brilliantly suggestive latticeworks of intellectual vaudeville, studded with song and dance. Cosson, 37, resists describing them as documentaries, although they are woven from the texts of real interviews conducted by the company. “A documentary investigates something to know more about it,” he says. “A creative investigative process—which I’m trying to coin—reveals what you don’t know about something.” Cosson is currently working on multiple projects: an interview-based look at conservative Christianity; a revision of a play set in the final days of the Paris Commune; and a piece about time, the research of which involves trips to Panama and Northern Canada. “I want to do experimental theater for the public,” he says. “For an audience that is not composed of professional theater-attending people.”—Adam Feldman