Much effort seems to have gone into rebuilding Craig Lucas’ first go as a playwright, and while the new and apparently improved “Missing Persons” is bolstered by all the attention, it remains a middling, conventional work from a man who would go on to better things.
Expanding this downbeat comedy-drama from one act to two, Lucas has avoided the sense of padding one might expect, though he hasn’t been quite so successful in resolving in act two the conflicts he sets up in act one.
Those conflicts involve Addie (Mary Beth Peil), a sad, middle-aged Swarthmore professor whose talent for criticism extends beyond literary journals. Addie’s rigidly high standards may have driven away her husband 23 years ago; they certainly have cowed her 30-year-old would-be poet son, Hat (Todd Weeks), into ineffectuality and bitterness. Adding to Hat’s cynical state is his 2-week-old divorce from Joan (Mary McCann), a woman whose idea of literature is the latest John Grisham novel.
Pending other living arrangements — and despite their emotional and legal separation — Joan and Hat continue to live in Addie’s big, rural home, sharing the house on this particular Thanksgiving with a number of other visitors both real and imagined. On the real side are Steve (John Cameron Mitchell), an extremely dim but sweet young grocery clerk who upsets the household with periodic nude sleepwalking jaunts, and Gemma (Camryn Manheim), a young mother still grieving the death of her husband.
While all these characters are “missing” in some way — alienated not only from one another but from their own desires — the play’s title gets its most literal interpretation from two ghostly figures who haunt Addie’s thoughts and life: Tucker (Jordan Lage), her long-gone husband, and young Hat (Cameron Boyd), her son forever stuck at age 10, before he would grow up — and grow emotionally distant.
The thin plot revolves mostly around the recent divorce. But with Joan’s eventual departure a foregone conclusion, the burden of dramatic tension falls to the mother-son relationship: Can Addie let go of the past and connect with her struggling son? Despite the best efforts of actress Peil, whose hangdog expressions speak more eloquently about Addie’s pain than the text, act two’s resolution seems both sketchy and altogether too tidy.
Oddly, the character of Hat, weakly written and performed, is a void, giving the play’s title an unfortunate and clearly unintended spin. Rest of the cast, under Michael Mayer’s straightforward direction, fares better, although the ever-dependable Mitchell could play the flighty sleepwalker in his sleep.
Tech credits are especially elaborate for the Atlantic, a company that usually opts for a more minimalist look. David Gallo and Lauren Helpern have created a wonderfully effective country home, loaded with books, well-worn furniture and secret places that hide the ghostly apparitions. Laura Cunningham’s costumes are fine, with one notable exception: Her 1970s garb for Addie’s long-lost husband makes him look less the struggling poet than a low-level Mafioso.
Despite the occasional slip-ups, though, the Atlantic probably has given “Missing Persons” about as decent a production as is possible. It’s the play itself that doesn’t rise above its limitations.