nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
March 21, 2008
In this age of cursory emails and text messages, could the return to old-fashioned letter writing restore intimacy and communication to the lives of lonely single urbanites? Garret Jon Groenveld's new play Missives suggests that our yearning for connection might be fulfilled by the lost form of personal correspondence. Missives is told mostly in epistolary format, a series of monologues representing the letters passed between Lia (in a lovely performance given by Shamika Cotton), a young professional African American woman, and Ben (Richard Gallagher), the thirtysomething gay eccentric who lives on the same floor. Ben initiates the relationship with an impulsive and whimsical note cataloging the flowers he would like to give the stranger down the hall. Lia then passes a sassy reply under his door and before you can say "special delivery," the two are intimate pen pals. They agree not to talk in person and to protect their intimacy by communicating only through letters. The heartfelt premise works up to a point, as long as the play keeps a balance between the two central characters. Groenveld deftly handles the monologue format and maintains a sense of action and development through the letters. But as the focus narrows onto Ben's story at the cost of Lia's, the play tips to excess.
Early in the relationship, Ben states that there's little difference between a gay white man and a black woman, and Groenveld clearly wants to demonstrate the universality of human experience. But even while telling us how much the two protagonists share in common, his storytelling takes a radically different approach to each character. The play fixates on the disruptive events of Ben's life—a doomed relationship with an AIDS-stricken lover and a fatal encounter with a psychopathic trick from his past—which are played out on stage. The men from Ben's life appear and speak through letters and missives of their own. Meanwhile, major events in Lia's life such as marriage, parenthood, and divorce are all pushed offstage and into the background. Sadly, Lia seems relegated to the role of supportive bystander to the drama of the gay white man; her racial identity ultimately plays little importance to the play overall, whereas Ben's sexuality and behavior are the major forces in the plot.
It's disappointing to see the play tilt in this direction, especially with Cotton holding the center of this production with such grace. Although Lia becomes a passive player, Cotton brings conviction and heart to every moment. She is onstage the entire play, and whether speaking or listening, she is always alive and honest. Opposite her, I found Gallagher difficult to believe as Ben. The role is written to be edgy, flamboyant, and emotionally volatile; there are opportunities for darkness and danger, but it requires nuance as well. Gallagher maintains a relentlessly boyish perkiness no matter what happens to his character, and he relies on an affected swishy-ness to illustrate his homosexuality. He is not helped by the costume choices by designer Barbara Iams Korein, who puts him in drab, loose preppy-ware that rings false for a young gay man who thrives on flamboyance and overt sexuality.
Still it is clear that a great deal of care and craft have gone into the production. Elysabeth Kleinhans, artistic director of 59E59, directs with compassion and control. Her staging brings movement and clarity to the monologue format, and she draws convincing and powerful performances from Cotton and from the supporting cast. Ryan Tresser as Ben's sick lover Steven is appealing, sympathetic, and strong, though it is hard to understand why Steve starts writing his own confessional missives to Lia. As Freddie, the psychopath who really messes things up, Jay Randall walks a fine line between the bizarre and the unbelievable, and thankfully he gives just enough without going overboard. Ashley West is pitch-perfect in her videotaped moments as Trixie, the soap opera vixen whom Lia and Ben both worship.
Kevin B. Frech produced these playful soap opera parody vignettes from Groenveld's script, and they provide a fun commentary on the play's central relationship. Maruti Evans gives the production a cool, urbane atmosphere with a simple set and smart lighting, and with the above-noted exception, Korein's costumes are on-target. She also provides erratically used projections which sometimes supply poetic imagery but at other times illustrate the obvious. Overall, Groenveld has a strong team working for his play, delivering a theatrical missive that is intimate, and, for as long as one is willing to accept the terms of the script, engaging.