The Civilians serve up a wildly funny and marvelously inventive meditation on things lost and sometimes found.
This unusual show features a script by director Steven Cosson, based upon interviews conducted by company members, as well as a terrific score from Michael Friedman. It originally debuted shortly after September 11, 2001 when the theme of loss had a rather pronounced resonance. It played to critical acclaim at the Belt Theater in 2003, and has since toured extensively before coming back to New York to make its summer home at the Barrow Street Theatre.
For this limited engagement, three members of the original cast -- Damian Baldet, Jennifer R. Morris, and Colleen Werthmann -- are joined by Emily Ackerman, Stephen Plunkett, and Robbie Collier Sublett, all of whom have been with the project at least since its 2006 incarnation at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville. While the entire cast makes for a tight ensemble, Ackerman and Plunkett are the clear stand-outs. Ackerman has a mesmerizing presence and ability to bring her characters to vivid life, whether it's a pet psychic or an arthritic old woman identified in the script as "Great Aunt." Plunkett shines as the recurring character of a police officer, who talks about finding dead bodies. His portrayal is genial and grounded, even as the actor brings out the dark humor of the material when describing the most grisly details of the cop's line of work.
The remaining cast members all have terrific moments, as well. Sublett is at his best as an Englishman who talks about a time when he lost language. Werthmann is rather moving as a mother who recalls an instance when one of her daughters lost a tiny sock doll named "Sniffle" and the family's quest to find it. Morris is amusing as a woman named Laura whose attempts to find her misplaced Gucci pump borders on the obsessive (and may actually cross over). Baldet is perhaps the weakest performer, and his attempt to cross gender lines to play an elderly woman is one of the production's few missteps. Still, he functions well in the ensemble sequences, and often provides guitar accompaniment for other cast members.
In addition, a trio of musicians on piano, bass, and drums give life to Friedman's eclectic score under the supervision of music director Andy Boroson. The catchy title song is reminiscent of 80s pop, reinforced by Jim Augustine's choreography that seems lifted out of a Devo video.
The salsa-flavored "La Bodega," with Plunkett on lead vocals, is another highlight, as is the pop ballad "Lost Horizon," sweetly sung by Sublett. None of the actors are vocal powerhouses, but they're all able to sell their songs and the occasional off-pitch note is forgivable.
Friedman's lyrics are frequently hilarious, with lines such as "Think what my nephew Chris/Just lost at his Bris" from Ackerman's solo, "The Only Thing Missing is You." He also keys in ideas from the various scenes and monologues seen throughout the show that reinforce certain thematic concerns of the piece. For example, a recurring motif within Gone Missing is "An interview with Dr. Palinurus" that has various company members taking on the roles of a noted historian and the radio personality he speaks with. They discuss Atlantis, nostalgia, and the Platonian ideal, all of which find their way into Friedman's songs.
The piece concludes with a recording of the Palinurus interview, voiced by guest artists Nina Hellman and T. Ryder Smith. It plays against a striking visual image -- one that dynamically demonstrates how certain objects can have a palpable presence, while at the same time evoking what is no longer there.