Epistolary friendships, New York City apartments, and the trouble with intimacy and neighbors collide in Missives. Leah and Ben's correspondence is first a way for two lonely people to make a connection, but when Ben dissappers, will they provide clues as to why?
By Ilana Novick
Those of us living in
Ben, a white gay man of frequently changing but never revealed occupations begins the correspondence on a whim, with a letter to Leah, an African-American legal secretary, after seeing her argue with a date. Her withering gaze, and the attitude with which she tells to her potential love interest in no uncertain terms to get lost, intrigues Ben. He wants to get to know this feisty woman more, but is afraid of breaking the privacy. The direction and blocking of the characters in the set suffer from the same problem at the center of Ben and Leah’s relationship; a lack of direct, in-person interaction. The actors are essentially reciting the contents of their letters. They talk to each other, but not with each other, sitting on separate couches representing their mutual apartments. Visually, their physical separation on stage only makes each of them seem more alone, despite the constant declarations of closeness that they claim the letters provide.
Richard Gallagher plays Ben with the worst and most exaggerated stereotypes of a gay man, all faint lisp and limp wrists, but the tenderness with which he reveals himself to Leah, and the random, yet charming way he decides to write to her in the first place, after seeing her come home from a date, makes him endearing. Shamika Cotton as Leah is much less animated, often frowning, hesitant to start the correspondence in the first place, but ultimately charmed by the novelty.
Leah spends the play in pajamas and a hooded sweatshirt, the outfit of relaxation, but also, fashion-wise, of defeat. Her personality and movement, slow and awkward, don’t transcend her outward appearance. As exaggerated as Ben occasionally is, he seems to be more responsive to Leah’s letters; lying on the floor feet up and eyes wide when telling juicy dating stories, and suddenly shifting to sitting up with perfect posture, legs crossed, eyes alert, when Leah is talking more seriously about her mother. By contrast Leah is much more static in her movement and emotions. Even when she’s supposed to be happy her expression and her clothing just make her look tired.
Ben also has an advantage because he’s also given another person to interact with, this time directly, in the form of a boyfriend named Steven (Ryan Tresser). The relationship adds some momentum to the plot, and gives more of a context to Ben’s life. His chemistry with Steven is palpable in the glances they share as Steven wraps his arms around his waist, as they playfight and smile while watching TV or writing joint letters to Leah. Ben is permanently smiling with him, even as he senses the relationship won’t last. Steven and Ben write to Lisa for a period, which adds a much needed outsider’s perspective on the relationship. The addition of a third member to the group adds some life to the text of the letters. But as soon as the relationship with Steven ends, so does the chemistry between the two remaining characters.
The concept of a relationship restricted to letters raises questions about how truthful friends and neighbors alike can be with each other in person. As much as their letters reveal—everything from Leah’s marriage (to a husband the audience never sees) to her mother’s death, to Stephen and Ben’s meeting to their dramatic breakup to their mutual obsession with the Soap Opera “Through the Hourglass”— whether aside from romances either of them ever have any friends, any interests besides soap operas, even whether Leah has any other clothes.
Neither Leah nor the audience know any more about Ben by the end of the play than they did when they first began writing. Leah had invested her emotions in a relationship, and she walked away with the knowledge of an average neighbor, muttering a quick hello at the elevator before disappearing into each other’s mutual apartments, and lives. For all that Missives is a play about breaking down the anonymity between neighbors, it ends while still being just as anonymous.
Missives runs from March 20 to April 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays at , Sundays at in theater C at 59 E 59 Theaters,