Thursday, June 28, 2007

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.