Typically, theatrical works take place in the here and now. In “Gone Missing,” characters engage the audience by talking about their past experiences with lost objects. Amazingly, this technique, which flies in the face of traditional theater, doesn’t put the audience to sleep.
More than just stories about lost items, “Gone Missing” explores the loss of human contact. Through a series of intertwined reminiscences, it seems as though we’re sitting in a coffee shop chatting with each character. The topnotch cast deftly switches from one role to another, as they take turns recounting tales of lost objects. At times, a character tries to talk about the loss of husband, a job or a mind, but the others interrupt such abstract talk. By focusing on the mundane, the cast explores the definition of a person, and our place in the universe.
Only through song does the play deal with lost relationships and other painful topics, as in “I Gave It Away,” an aggressive tune about gleefully shedding a rotten ex’s possessions while robbing him of his power. (Admit it, you’ve done it.) Music is the sleight of hand that allows the mind to confront these complex issues.
The monologues were gleaned from interviews The Civilians conducted with ordinary New Yorkers following 9/11, and they’re woven into a crazy human quilt by Steve Cosson, the Civilians’ founder. The New York-based troupe works as a team to create original projects based on real life using both documentary and artistic styles. It’s a bit like David Greenberger’s “Duplex Planet,” a comic book series based on interviews with nursing home residents.
Comedy and tragedy share the stage equally, as the characters run the gamut from a hard-bitten New York cop (Stephen Plunkett) who delights in the gory details of his DOA investigations, to a bitter elderly woman (Emily Ackerman) who warns that you can’t trust anybody, as she describes caretakers who steal her possessions, including a crocheted blanket she made. Ackerman injects humor into pathos when she comments on Afghan design, saying “not one of those ones with circles … I hate those.” Jennifer R. Morris flawlessly portrays an expert who specializes in teaching obsessive collectors to throw away their junk.
Through the hilarious radio interview about the lost continent of Atlantis with an eminent author (interspersed throughout the play by different actors), we learn that “nostalgia” is a neologism from the Greek words for “returning home” and “pain,” the work’s central theme. In the crescendo, lights descend around the actors as they deliver the philosophical song “Stars,” which posits that we may not exist but as a memory.
In the dramatic and stunning conclusion, the actors shed their suit jackets and, one by one, hang them on an unseen hook as they exit the stage, leaving them suspended in mid-air. It’s a moving tribute to the white-collar workers who were vaporized in the attack on the World Trade Center.