Short stories are rich resource material for plays. But Ken Urban’s new play, “The Correspondent,” would make a better short story. The plot is concise and spooky: a man mourning his dead wife pays a terminally ill woman to deliver a message to his departed soulmate, who would rather have this conversation in person. It’s precisely the kind of suggestive story that stirs the imagination to visualize the specifics. But as an all-too-tangible stage play (and all-too-literally directed and enacted), the material loses all its mystery and lays bare its utter lack of logic.
If this material were encountered on the printed page, the imagination could really run with it. Attractive middle-aged white man, senior partner in his law firm. Quarrels with wife, who is subsequently mowed down by a car. Pays young black woman, supposedly at death’s door, to deliver his love to his wife when they meet on the other side.
Despite their differences (in age, class, race, education, and financial status), romance ensues. But (here comes the spooky part) wife will have none of that. After sending intimate messages from beyond the grave, she appears in the flesh. But in the flesh of a young man.
Ghost? Con artist? Wait for the incredibly potent last line to find out.
In the Rattlestick production helmed by Stephen Brackett, the frisson of this dreamy ghost story almost entirely evaporates in performance. Just for starters, it’s hard to reconcile the set’s shabby living quarters with the elegant Beacon Hill townhouse of a supposedly well-off lawyer.
But it’s harder still to reconcile the romantic characters suggested by the story with the depressingly ordinary people who show up here. Although it appears to have been the intention of both the playwright and the director, casting “regular folk” and playing for realism (including some noisy smooching and one graphic sex scene) takes the fantasy out of the mix.
Never mind that he doesn’t look like a movie star and is badly costumed. As Philip Graves, the charmless Thomas Jay Ryan brings out the grieving widower’s worst qualities without conveying the qualities that at least three people find attractive. The man is a monstrous narcissist, getting over his grief for his wife in less than a month, and then coldly casting off one lover for another without considering anyone’s feelings but his own.
The character does say nice things to Heather Alicia Simms’s unbelievably robust Mirabel, who has been burdened with an immense backpack and squeezed into a too-tight, busily patterned snow jacket. But Ryan’s manner is condescending and, when he raises his voice in a shout, rather menacing.
Jordan Geiger is rather more interesting as the effete Young Man who may or may not embody the spirit of Graves’ dearly departed wife. Aside from looking absurd in a girly nightgown, he has the fussy mannerisms of a house-proud woman — and a pissed-off wife.