Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Gone Missing

The Civilians is the name of a quirky downtown group that combines earnest docudrama with self-referential musical satire, and chances are you’ve never heard of them.

But I’ve been following this brilliant gang for years, hoping they would get a break. Well good news: The Civilians have revived “Gone Missing,” a 2003 musical meditation about loss, for an extended Off-Broadway run. Now, it’s your chance to discover this superb company.

On paper, even on video, what the group does so well might sound like a college stunt: six performers dressed in matching grey suits, dancing robotically, slip in and out of dozens of characters, who give their thoughts on loss, both material and metaphysical.

Between sound bites, they break into various styles of song: salsa, indie rock and bouncy show tunes. The fragmentary text was generated through interviews with real people, as well as found material from posters, classified ads and interview transcripts from the Public Radio program “Fresh Air.” There are memorable lines from cops, shopkeepers, professors and others about losing shoes, wedding rings, cell phones, as well as segments about nostalgia, grief and even losing one’s mind. We hear from a guy who specializes in helping people get rid of clutter and an Englishman who temporarily loses language.

Keeping all these disparate elements together is a wonderfully witty score by Michael Friedman, while director Steve Cosson displays a pitch-perfect ear for tone, which shifts from goofy triviality to profound drama. The six actors, who play multiple characters with amazing precision, all deserve shout-outs: Emily Ackerman, Damian Baldet, Jennifer Morris, Stephen Plunkett, Robbie Sublett and Colleen Werthmann. Once you find these guys, you won’t want to let them out of your sight.

While they’ve been a familiar feature on the Off-Off Broadway scene for years, I’m happy to say that more New Yorkers than ever are able to check out The Civilians. I bet you’ll like what you find.

– David Cote