Welcome to the bigger leagues. Long known as a scrappy downtown troupe, the Civilians have built their reputation by touring the U.S. and Europe with their signature style of documentary musical theater. Usually performing transcripts of company-conducted interviews alongside droll songs by composer Michael Friedman, they have explored off-kilter topics like evangelism, distrusting the news, and the lives of geese. The troupe reaches the milestone of a commercial, Off Broadway debut with “Gone Missing,” a reflection on loss that’s both ridiculous and profound.
Though it’s a collection of unrelated monologues and songs, the show is unified by a type of aesthetic struggle. The creatives — led by director, book writer and Civilians founder Steven Cosson — have crafted a battle between intellectual and emotional responses to the subject matter.
Visually, the production opts for cool remove. Though the six ensemble members are reciting the literal words of interviewees — barring one set of scripted conversations between a scientist and a radio host — they usually seem unnatural. Dressed in matching dark suits, they enter like extras in a new wave music video, moving with stiff limbs, crouching at random and keeping their faces blank.
Bathed in Thomas Dunn’s ethereal blue lighting, they stand in front of a simple blue wall, the top of which looks like waves. Perhaps we are being plunged into an ambiguous world of “lostness.” However they are interpreted, these odd images are evocative and crisp. More importantly, they push us away from the most emotional speeches, reminding us that we are watching a reasoned inquiry as much as an outpouring of anecdotes.
Cosson also thwarts sentimentality by chopping the monologues into pieces. For instance, we hear the opening of a story about a woman who loses her uncle’s fortune, but another actor interrupts her to begin a separate tale. Because they are so fractured, the speeches can’t build standard emotional arcs.
And yet, for all the self-conscious artistry grafted over them, many of these people still reach out with genuine, empathetic force. When they are speaking, Cosson frees his actors to be realistic, and all of them embody their subjects with strong, believable details.
Stephen Plunkett is particularly memorable as a New York cop who describes finding bodies with missing parts. Thesp’s body and voice create a man who has developed a gruff, likeable sense of humor to deal with horror.
And there’s a woman played by Colleen Werthmann, who tells a simple story about a child losing her doll. Despite being told in fragments, it’s incredibly touching, largely because Werthmann plays the woman with such unaffected sweetness.
Friedman’s songs hover between emotional and intellectual extremes. Sometimes, like when they slide into Spanish or reference operetta, they are all wit, but sometimes they are vulnerable riffs on loneliness. Either way, they add enjoyable texture to the spoken sections.
The show’s sophistication can become self-indulgently arty. Even if it snipped a few strange tableaux or saucy rhyming couplets, everyone would still know the production was smart.
But that’s just a cavil. Overall, “Gone Missing” is engrossing and inventive. And it delivers a stunning payoff in its final scene. With nothing more than some suit jackets and silence, the Civilians conjure a meditation on their theme that’s both a kick in the gut and a philosophical conundrum. It’s the kind of conclusion that lingers in the mind long after the show that offered it has vanished.