“The Correspondent” at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (Closed Sunday March 16, 2014)

February 14, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Ken Urban
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“[Charlotte’s] come back to me. There’s nothing more right.” – Philip Graves to Mirabel in Scene Nine

Bereavement makes for a strange bedfellow. It joins battle with the bereaved and insists on skirmishes with denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and (ultimately) acceptance of the death of the loved one. These incursions into the life of the bereaved are not necessarily ad seriatim events: the skirmishes can coalesce into an anxiety-ridden Armageddon. It is at this point of lamentation the audience encounters Philip Graves (Thomas Jay Ryan) whose wife Charlotte died recently in an accident. Philip’s uncommon and a bit uncanny response to that loss is the engaging subject of Ken Urban’s “The Correspondent” currently running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

In classic denial style, Philip refuses to believe Charlotte’s death is permanent and brokers with a service to send a correspondent to heaven to deliver a message to his deceased wife. The service provides an employee who expects to die in the near future and promises to deliver Phil’s letter to Charlotte. That employee is Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms) whose Roxbury tough exterior belies a thirty-something woman searching for something new in her life. After hearing Philip’s story, con artist Mirabel begins to morph into his strongest advocate after an off-stage voice and a series of handwritten letters from the deceased introduces an androgynous Young Man (Jordan Geiger) who brazenly claims to be Phil’s deceased wife Charlotte. Philip is convinced the Young Man is Charlotte redivivus, falls in love with him, and shuts Mirabel out completely. From the script:

MIRABEL: Who is he?
PHILIP: He has her memories.
MIRABEL: I know you’re hurting. But that boy is not your wife. How can he be?
PHILIP: I don’t understand what’s happening. But it’s her.

Gathering information culled from obituaries, newspaper articles about Charlotte’s death, and conversations at Mass General where Charlotte volunteered, both Mirabel and the Young Man jockey for a position of importance in the interstices of Philip’s profound grief. Even when the Young Man’s memory misfires during a dinner conversation, Philip refuses to enter the space of disbelief. From the script:

PHILIP: How could you not remember that summer we went up the coast? That weekend on the beach / we stayed right there–
YOUNG MAN: Ridiculous. You’re changing the subject. Any excuse not to talk, not to hear–
PHILIP: You used to say it was one of our happiest times–
YOUNG MAN: What replaces desire is blame. The night we fought, you struck me because I forced you to see, finally, your part in this. I should’ve fought harder.

What results is a kaleidoscope of gender-bending, death-defying, convention-challenging three-ring performances with playwright Ken Urban and director Stephen Beckett holding forth as ringmasters and illusionists par excellence. Ken Urban is a master illusionist: he has the uncanny ability to challenge an audience’s perception of – indeed its understanding of – reality. Aided and abetted by Mr. Brackett, Mr. Urban’s script takes the audience on a tour-de-force mind-bending series of twists and turns that keep the audience engaged long after leaving the theatre.

The depth and intricacy of Andrew Boyce’s set dimly lighted by Eric Southern successfully simulates the gyri and sulci of the brain and the recesses of both the human mind and the jagged corners of elusive memory and provides the prototypical arena for Ken Urban’s beautifully executed resurrection mind games and morally ambiguous behaviors of his complex characters.

The importance of the motivation and the authenticity of the play’s characters are inherent in the cast’s scintillating performances. Heather Alicia Simms’ Mirabel (“of wondrous beauty”) is a disenfranchised woman determined to change her future, willing to do whatever it takes to hold Philip to his pledge of love including haunting him “for the rest of his life.” Jordan Geiger’s Young Man is searching for love and meaning in the last moments of his life and risks opening himself to a relationship with a grieving straight man to discover surcease from loneliness. Mr. Geiger moves about spirit like and glides across Philip’s floors with the grace and charm of the bereaved’s wife Charlotte. Finally, Thomas Jay Ryan’s Philip Graves (what an apt surname!)broods about his home convinced he can contact his dead wife. Philip, much like “Chicago’s” Mister Cellophane, is a character Mirabel and the Young Man can “look right through” and “walk right by” never knowing he is there except as a vehicle for their own redemption and release.

Add to all of this the audience member’s own memories of love, conflict, disillusionment, loss, grieving, and culpability and Mr. Urban’s extraordinary script becomes a veritable Pandora’s Box of human angst counterpointed by a treasure chest brimming with human hope and opportunity. “The Correspondent” needs to be on the theatre-goers’ list of must see performances.