Missing, She Went
There is an incalculable sadness to most of the characters in Phyllis Nagy's 1995 play, Disappeared. From a police detective who loathes his wife and children to the young woman at the center of the play's mystery who disappears one night after posting up in a Manhattan tavern, unhappiness—and the inability to shake free from its doldrums—is a virus.
Which is what makes the character of Elston Rupp so fascinating. Where the rest of Disappeared's players are stuck in jobs they hate and lives they resent, Rupp gleefully dons another persona, that of a high-powered entertainment lawyer whose tuxedo he discovers at the thrift shop he works at. Now, the friendless, painfully awkward Rupp has a reason to actually talk to people. He winds up at a seedy tavern in Hell's Kitchen and strikes up a bizarre conversation with Sarah, a young travel agent who, interestingly, has never taken a trip.
Although the play is set into motion by that conversation, as well as Sarah's subsequent disappearance, it's really about Elston. He's the most peculiar and ambiguous and downright weirdest character in the play, but in the more-than-capable hands of Robert Dean Nunez, he's an achingly real person. Both the Turtles' song "Elenore" and the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" are referenced in the play. Few dramatic constructs capture the kind of metropolitan isolation embodied in the latter like Elston does.
Since he's the last person who saw Sarah (Jennifer Pierce) before she disappeared, he's the obvious person of interest in the subsequent police investigation. His interrogation comes in the first scene of the second act, and it's a white-knuckler, with Elston squaring off against police detective Ted (Rick Kopps). Ted is trying to ferret out some detail of information from a man who, while seeming simply and soft on the outside, has a Dexter-like inner monologue that prevents anyone from getting too close or figuring him out.
That's kind of like Nagy's play as well. It's a tough one to figure out because she doesn't give any clear answers. We don't know what happened to Sarah, whether Elston is mildly touched or a criminal mastermind, why Sarah's mother immediately proclaims her dead. Characters seem to constantly be playing games with one another—and themselves. But the lack of actual answers, rather than making the play seem unsatisfying, heightens its mystery and draws focus away from the rather flimsy plot to the intense psychological jousting at work.
Director Dave Barton (a regular art critic for the Weekly) is in good hands with Nunez and Kopps in the two most prominent roles. Both actors rank among the most talented in Orange County, and they fully demonstrate that in Disappeared. He's less fortunate when it comes to the rest of cast; with the exception of the histrionically funny Susan E. Taylor's Ellen, Sarah's mother, none of the others seems to have a fleshed-out, substantive character. They appear either bored or agitated. Fortunately, Elston is never too far away.
Much like The Wire, the best TV show ever, the dominant character in Disappeared is a city: New York. Nagy, who worked and lived there for years before moving to Los Angeles, obviously knows it well and realizes the crushing anonymity that life in a megalopolis can foster. Yet, interestingly for a play set in the middle of one of the world's greatest cities, there is a large amount of energy focused on traveling. Talk of driving and maps is common. That Sarah—the travel agent who has never taken a trip—was last seen heading toward the Holland Tunnel, away from New York City, is no coincidence. Characters want to slip free from their lives and jobs, and the only thing that gives them any hope is to go elsewhere. Yet no one really leaves—with the possible exception of Sarah. So, in that respect, Disappeared is a road trip that never happens.
Which is fine. The real territory that Nagy is interested in exploring is the vast expanse between the human ears. And there is no road map for the human soul. The characters in Disappeared may long for one, something that might give them direction, but, when all is said and done, they're all traveling blind like the rest of us.
This review appeared in print as "Missing, She Went: Figuring out life without a road map in the Monkey Wrench Collective's staging of Disappeared."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Orange County art and theater scene.