Roadworks Productions

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

By Justin Hayford

A mystery lurks at the heart of Disappeared, but it’s not the one the playwright intended. Phyllis Nagy’s 1995 play is a kind of philosophical thriller-cum-murder mystery. One night a curious man in an ill-fitting suit appears in a Hell’s Kitchen bar, ready to chat with anyone about anything. The only other customer that night is the perpetually pickled Sarah Casey, lip-synching to the Turtles and dancing about in an attempt to forget her miserable life. The stranger introduces himself first as an entertainment attorney and then as a serial killer. Something about him–perhaps his gentle manner, perhaps his professed desire to escape to a faraway land–draws Sarah in.

And everything in Roadworks’ spectacular opening scene draws us in. Designer Geoffrey M. Curley has transformed Steppenwolf’s usually intimate studio theater into what looks like a football-field-sized attic, the huge stage seeming to rest on stacks of old newspapers. Yet the starlike bare bulbs strung up behind the translucent back wall suggest a cosmological intelligence presiding over everything. Andre Pluess and Benjamin Sussman’s sound design, combining distant city noise with cool jazz, creates an atmosphere of pulp-fiction intrigue.

But more than anything else the cast’s razor-sharp acting–long a Roadworks trademark–gives this seemingly inconsequential scene palpable suspense. Through the subtlest of means, these actors make idle chitchat seem ominous; something is about to go horribly wrong. Director Abigail Deser underscores the sense of impending doom by placing the actors at the rear of the stage, where they appear as tiny figures against a vaulting artificial sky. It’s apparent to us that Sarah, the stranger, and even the bartender are star-crossed in the extreme.

And something does go horribly wrong. In Nagy’s eyes, it’s the sudden disappearance of Sarah, who leaves the bar with the stranger never to be heard from again. But in reality it’s the play that disappears, as Nagy fiddles with peripheral oddities for two and a half hours and utterly neglects her plot. She spends nearly the entire first act introducing us to fascinating characters–Sarah’s willfully blind mother, her doltish boyfriend, a disconsolate police detective–but rarely lets them do anything besides reveal their quirks. For example, a flashback in the middle of the act shows the stranger–a man named Elston Rupp–visiting Sarah at her job as a travel agent. For a good 15 minutes Nagy dotes on their odd, complementary natures: she’s a travel agent who’s never traveled, he’s an inconsequential nobody happy to be anywhere so long as he’s noticed. But nothing in this flashback advances the plot or enhances the mystery of their fateful meeting two weeks later. A better playwright could have established their relationship in two or three lines.

Nagy raises a number of philosophical issues, innocuously musing on the nature of fate, existence, and identity. The character most affected by these issues is Elston, a meek flyspeck of a man who dons other people’s clothes to feel he has a personality. Fortunately he works in a thrift store, where racks of new identities await him every day. Like a 19th-century simpleton, he wanders through life with nothing but good intentions, peering into people’s souls and offering gems of wisdom. When he finds himself accused of Sarah’s murder, he seems delighted to receive the attention.

But like most other elements of the play, Elston’s philosophical deliberations never evolve. He’s an oddity, not a dramatic catalyst–a serious problem for a character planted at the center of a story. Nagy tries to dramatize his impact on those around him; the police detective reveals the depth of his misery while he investigates Elston, and the attorney whose suit Elston wore in the bar becomes obsessively concerned that somehow he might have had something to do with Sarah’s disappearance. But these underdeveloped, unconvincing subplots seem mere decorations strung up to give the play texture.

Like too many contemporary playwrights, Nagy writes around the fringes of her play, where idiosyncrasies reign, and never gets around to the play itself. It’s hard to believe she also penned the streamlined adaptation of The Scarlet Letter produced at Footsteps two years ago; in that script she wasted no time, diving headfirst into Hawthorne’s intricate plot. There she had a story. Here she has only a premise.

With Roadworks, however, she does have a first-rate company. This expertly cast, swiftly paced, ingeniously acted production is rich in nuance and rife with humor. Nothing gets in the way of the acting; you never see any effort, you just see the scene. Larry Neumann Jr. as Elston is excellent as usual, giving his character just the right creepy edge, keeping us wondering whether Elston might indeed be the world’s most good-hearted murderer. And Stephanie Childers as Sarah is a fascinating, pathetic mix of savvy and naivete.

In the end, there’s no mystery to Sarah’s disappearance–or at least not one complex enough to ponder for two and a half hours. The real mystery is why Roadworks chose to stage this play in the first place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Phil Kohlmetz.