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A CurtainUp Review
By Summer Banks
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 and performed with panache. Varying stylistically from standard musical theater to German lieder, the numbers are played by a small band at the side of the stage, creating an intimate jazz-club ambiance 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.
The ensemble is obviously familiar with the material and one another, playing off the rhythms of the piece with accuracy and charm. The women, Emily Ackerman, Jennifer R. Morris, and Colleen Werthman are particularly memorable in a girl group number about breaking up called "I Gave It Away." Each has her own distinctive style, bringing particular life to her characters. Robbie Collier Sublett delivers the song "Lost Horizon" perfectly, giving the surprisingly humorous lyrics just the right amount of gravitas.
Accomplished with the perfect amount of tact and comedic timing, Stephen Plunkett's cop reappears throughout the evening. In the evening's most poignant moment, a security guard (performed spot on by Damian Baldet) at the World Trade Center recalls how he lost his Palm Pilot when he was directed to secure a 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 this connection to universal ideals that makes Gone Missing feel more real than most naturalistic plays. It is also why any attempt to label the play falls horribly short of encapsulating its nature. It's a philosophical play about lost shoes and a cabaret with love songs, but ultimately it's just theater, blissfully free from the restrictions of definition.
Editor's Note: To read our review of the Civilian's last Off-Broadway production, see (I am) Nobody's Lunch.