Last night I went to see my roommate Richard Gallagher in the play Missivesby Garret Jon Groenveld. Richard plays Ben, a gay white man in apartment 102 who starts slipping letters to his neighbor, Lia (played by Shamika Cotton), an African-American woman in apartment 103. The gesture annoys Lia at first, (“what’s the difference between a gay man and a black woman?”) but she writes back and they start a five year long letter-writing relationship where they become best friends, telling each other their inner most secrets and thoughts and yet keeping the pact that they can never meet in public or speak to each other.
The story opens in the present with the knowledge Ben has gone missing. Lia flashes back and begins to tell their story, in part for the police report she’s filed. Ben’s first monologue, an anaphoristic letter concerning all the imaginary flowers he would buy for Lia was very powerful (“I would buy you…”) The repetition of flowers, imaginary or real (even when real they are imaginary to the audience as the use of props is minimal) works well throughout the entire play to humanize these two characters: sometimes the act and choice of flowers Ben would give Lia acts as comic relief, sometimes as a poignant moment in their deepening bond.
The first act is solid: good range from Shamika as she gets sucked into this letter-writing relationship, and a nice set-up for the sinister second act. We watch Ben and Lia bond over their love for the soap opera Through the Hourglass, starring Trixie (played by Ashley West) and subsequently their relationships with their mothers. Here’s where my first quibble comes with one of the Director’s (Elysabeth Kleinhaus) choices: rather than have Ashley on stage during the Trixie moments, they pre-recorded her performance and project it on two flat screens (one above Ben’s sofa, one above Lia’s) like a real soap opera. While the choice lends some realism, it clearly would have been more powerful to physically have the fictional soap opera star appear on stage. I also took issue with the Director’s choice to have all the dates of the letters added (not part of the original play). This did nothing but serve to distract as I found myself unnecessarily focusing on the dates and how much time had passed between key events, lessening the plausibility that X could have happened in only a few weeks, or Y amount of time had passed since an event. The Director also chose to sometimes project the dates up on the wall, for no real reason (the characters just told us the dates in their dialogue), which also served as a distraction. The other projections, images of letters and later postcards from the serial killer, along with the imaginary flowers they exchange, were also unnecessary. The writing is so strong and vivid that throwing an image up seemed to say “I don’t trust my audience’s ability to imagine” a problem that seems to plague our media-saturated culture more and more.
If we measure the play by the emotion it stirs then it is quite successful. Ben and Lia really suck you in, in part due to the superb performances of their characters. We watch Lia finally dump the married man she’s been seeing, get set-up on an awful blind date that Ben arranges (and observes from across the restaurant), meet her future husband Josh, move out and get married (they continue their letter writing and Ben attends at the last minute in the last pew with a new man on his arm). Ben, a self-proclaimed slut, goes from sleeping with his own boss and throwing out many a one-stand night to finding his Mr. Right, Steven (played by Ryan Tresser) a former dancer. Great highs as Steven moves in with Ben and starts writing Lia as well, the best friend he’ll never meet. We eventually learn Steven’s secret, that he is HIV+ and watch the fallout between Ben, Steven and Lia. Ben discovers he is HIV-, Steven leaves him after a big argument and months later kills himself which sends Ben into a deep depression where he stops writing Lia.
Lia can’t stand not hearing from her best friend and eventually breaks their rule, going to Ben’s apartment to see him which only exacerbates the situation and pushes Ben further away. He descends into a long silence during which time Lia gets pregnant and has a child. When he finally writes again, around the time of her son’s first birthday, he begins to describe a series of disturbing postcards he’s been receiving in the mail addressed to an “Alix” and signed “F”. He can’t recall if it was one of his former one stand nights he threw out (he often used a fake name with them if he told them his name at all) but the postcards get increasing disturbing and obsessive. A good choice: as Freddie (played by Jay Randall) reads his postcards to Alix/Ben, he steps a little bit closer to the stage. It’s a nice way to show the increasing obsessiveness in the postcards as the character draws closer and closer to his victim, ending with him on stage knocking on Ben’s door.
Another good choice: the carpet used for the small set. On Ben’s half it was a white swirled pattern; on Lia’s a black swirl. A nice visual representation of their different spaces and identities which in the end, despite the different colors, equals the same swirl of humanity.
The second act saw Shamika’s energy falter a bit. She is grieving the entire act, and rightly so, but her range narrows too much. There’s one moment where she makes a joke in a letter to Ben and it was such a relief as the joke was another facet of her grief and we needed more moments like that, less of the narrow, weeping grief and more emotional swings. It could have made the knowledge of her anti-depressants actually mean something; otherwise it was just a detail that thudded as unnecessary. Randall’s performance of Freddie was a highlight of the show: he’s creepy, funny (the audience laughed the most during his monologues), and the details of his childhood, his claim that he was set-up and did not kill Ben (an implausible story involving Chiang Kai Shek that had me in tears it was so funny), and just his general take on the world (the way he describes eating a plum conjures cannibalism) make him a really convincing (and disturbing) serial killer.
Overall there’s a really good play in what I saw, a story that raises great questions: are we more who we are in our daily, monotonous lives, or are we more who we are when engaged in an act like letter writing? Is the self we project when writing to an audience (even if it is just one other person) a mask, a constructed self, or the true self? Why is it easier to be more intimate via letter-writing, with a stranger you’ve never really met nor do you intend to meet? What would make this play solid is some serious editing to make it shorter and tighter. There are many throw away moments/lines throughout (that whole last monologue of Ben’s should be cut, but even within it, details like riding in a glass elevator add nothing to the emotion on stage, slow down the story’s momentum, and fatigue an already emotionally exhausted audience). The ending proposed a clear choice to the playwright: to either have Lia sit with Ben’s unopened letters, open the box in which she kept them, and as she started to read fade to black (which would have been so powerful); or instead, as she starts to read we get this extended rambling final monologue where Ben tells her of his trip to Europe the only portion of which that seems relevant and powerful is the excursion in Amsterdam to see the flower displays. While on one hand it says “Ben is still alive in these letters” and she can conjure him just by reading, to have it end with her starting to read the letter and fading to black would have been a more powerful (and more challenging? less trite?) statement that in fact Ben is not still alive, even if we still have his words.