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'The Correspondent' is an awkward attempt at American gothic

Grief can lead the human mind to strange and self-defeating places.

You have to be careful not to let it consume you, or you may wind up in a supernatural love triangle with a scam artist and a young male cancer patient who claims to be possessed by your dead wife.

And I don't think you want that.

This, as far as I can tell, is the lesson embedded in Ken Urban's play "The Correspondent," a clunky three-hander made even clunkier by three performances so disconnected from one another that they might as well be taking place in different theaters.

It is possible to imagine a production of "The Correspondent" that rolls with Urban's nigh-absurdist attempt at American Gothic, perhaps camping up the design or performances to match the script's level of implausibility.

But under Kelli Bocock-Natale's direction, which treats this script with a seriousness normally reserved for Beckett, the story becomes an instant slog through a series of increasingly unlikely events. It does not help that those events are strung together with dialogue that would be cut from most self-respecting telenovelas. For example:

"So your wife's a man now, huh?" the scam artist asks, after being tossed to the curb. "I get it. Is it like a gay thing? He your boy-wife or whatever?"

"How can you even suggest such a thing?" Philip responds, as the stage directions keenly instruct, angrily.

It is not a gay thing, as it happens. It's more of a script thing.

In a play as troubled as "The Correspondent," it seems gratuitous to focus on the performances. But in this case, a more nuanced take on the play by this small cast of three might have salvaged some of Urban's more affecting or humorous lines.

In the lead role of Philip, a grief-stricken man who will do anything to set things right with his recently deceased wife, Richard Lambert seems to be performing for himself. When his character meets Mirabel (Candace Whitfield), there is a flicker of genuine connection which almost immediately fades. Lambert does not wait for Whitfield to finish her lines before he starts reciting his, which throws Whitfield off her game and audiences off the story.

For most of the play, they remain locked in this battle of recitation, in which Lambert always seems to be waiting for his turn to talk. In a one-act, this might have been easier to stomach. In two acts, it becomes tiring.

As the young man who may or may not be the reincarnation of Philip's wife, James McMaster does his best with the source material but is unable to rescue the piece from its own manifold problems.

Adding to the confusion is a set by John Kehoe that calls to mind a college flat furnished by the St. Vincent De Paul Society rather than the home of a senior partner in a Boston law firm. The liquor bottles strewn across the place, meant to symbolize Philip's emotional instability and neediness, would have more impact in a setting that more accurately reflected the height from which he is poised to fall.

As it is, this production of "The Correspondent," like its main character, is haunted and hobbled by its own intrinsic flaws.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

Theater Review
★½
"The Correspondent," a gothic drama by Ken Urban, runs through April 15 in the New Phoenix Theatre (95 Johnson Park). Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 853-1334 or visit newphoenixtheatre.org.

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