The Office of Dead Letters
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 19, 2013
A scene from The Office of Dead Letters
In a surreal office, suspended beyond time and place, a group of clownish office workers process letters written in the past but never received by their intended. As they perform a kind of channeling—speaking for the writers of the lost letters—we glimpse at characters such as lovers separated by the Berlin Wall, and a cult survivor apologizing to her dead sister after escaping the group’s mass suicide. The missives provide insight into broken communications and unfulfilled lives spanning the globe and history. Falling somewhere between an epistolary play and a series of thematically connected monologues, the postal-inspired show does not fully deliver.
Devised with heart by an ensemble of physically skilled actors, the piece gives voice to people who have been silenced by diverse repression—personal, societal, political. As cast members become characters and step forward to act the letters, others perform movement and choreography to illustrate or comment on the character’s predicament. Thus, as a callow businessman on doomed airplane wishes he had been kinder during his lifetime, the ensemble sits around him, folding and crushing paper airplanes.
I appreciated the international aspects of this project. The team features young artists from France, Israel, Holland, and Australia, and the production has a distinctly European feeling—most evocatively through Eric Cormier’s original music, which establishes a retro-circus tone. I detected the influence of film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, The City of Lost Children) and the physical spectacles of Theatre De Complicite. Nikula Hotaling’s creative set, composed of mismatched crates and moving racks strewn with colorful letters, offers possibilities of magic and transformation. But as writer and director Heloise Wilson (who also acts in the ensemble) attempts to straddle the whimsical and the sincere, she gives us a world that feels groundless, a bit vague, and sometimes infantile.
I struggled with Wilson’s choices for the “quirky clown creatures” that frame the show. In extensive physical interludes between each monologue, the cast members make funny faces and waddle, shuffle, and stumble around the stage. They hoot, whistle, and make other abstract noises. Do we understand them to be humans or animals? When they step out of these absurd gesticulations, the actors (Gwen Albers, Mischa Ipp, Edan Jacob Levy, Gina Marie Nuzzo, Ron Tsur, and Wilson) bring sincerity if not complexity to their characterizations. Most of the acting is played in broad tones of sadness and regret; nuance and detail are rarely on display.
An exceptional moment occurs when Wilson portrays a frightened child whose parents have sent her to America, presumably to ensure her own safety. I felt more specificity, and I heard a defense of the innocent that the entire project seems to be reaching for. If Wilson and her team could find the childlike and eliminate the childish, and develop more mature portrayals of the adult voices, I believe they would have a better chance of delivering their well-intended message.