The teasing Romanticism of expatriate American dramatist Phyllis Nagy is everywhere in evidence in “Disappeared,” a 1991 play getting a belated U.K. airing on the eve of her brand new “The Strip” at the Royal Court. Premiered in Leicester (through April 15) prior to a national tour, the play is being talked up for a London run in the summer, by which point the mess of a production surrounding it may well have been sorted out.
The play expresses a comparable desire for the sublime expressed in the works of colleagues of her generation like Tony Kushner, with whom Nagy shares a facility for language at once prickly and buoyant. Structured as a detective thriller — did Elston Rupp (Kerry Shale) murder the young travel agent, Sarah Casey (Alexandra Gilbreath), who has mysteriously vanquished? –“Disappeared” directs its real inquiry toward a community of dreamers with no outlet for their hopes. These are people who would vanish in a minute, if they knew where to go.
Elston yearns to be taken “someplace,” but doesn’t do much better than the car of the NYPD cop Mitchell (Richard Bremmer), whose company Elston comes to enjoy during the course of the interrogation. A thrift shop employee with a love for the secondhand, Elston is anonymous in a quintessentially New York way, living vicariously through other people’s clothes and fantasies as he plots the vaguest of escapes. Sarah, in turn, sells travel packages but rarely travels, and is far more likely to be found at home bickering with mother Ellen (a shrill Anna Keaveney) and hairdresser boyfriend Anthony (Eric Loren).
The two make terrific protagonists, but Nagy doesn’t stop there. Everyone in “Disappeared” has a quirky, vivid pungency, from the no-nonsense Ellen foisting marriage on her reluctant daughter to Elston’s employer, Natalie (Melee Hutton), whom he courts with chocolates he ends up eating himself. The play begins and ends with Sarah and Elston’s encounter in a Hell’s Kitchen bar presided over by onetime Golden Gloves champ Jack (Thomas Craig), an ex-lover of Sarah. And though the intervening scenes flash forward and back, the facts of Sarah’s disappearance ultimately don’t matter. Far more telling is our sense of a shared desire for transcendence implicit in the beautiful final exchange about “walking on air.”
A great production of “Disappeared” could leave audiences walking on air. But Derek Wax’s staging, given a reported 11th-hour assist from Nagy herself, doesn’t quite grasp the shifting moods and wit of a play in which a character is aptly compared to a hairline in terms of “receding.” Tim Shortall’s clunky set has yet to decide how abstract it wants to be, while most of the American accents haven’t decided where on Earth they are.
In a part made to order for a Jane Adams, Gilbreath does the standard English-thesp Sylvester Stallone impersonation without persuading us of the dampened-down visionary Sarah may truly be. A woman obsessed with coincidence and fate and the music of the Turtles, Sarah is a great character awaiting a great performance. Happily, Elston is already receiving one from the chameleonic Shale, as a man of disguise who revels in puzzles more than in their solutions. He’s a New York nobody as Everyman, an enigma both chilly and engaging; and while one can imagine several of the actors around him disappearing from this play, Shale is with “Disappeared”– I suspect — for keeps.