Battlefront Dispatches

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Epistolary relationships are a standard conceit of literature and theater. In today's world of texting, IMing, email, and FaceBook, however, it seems almost quaint to build a relationship through handwritten notes – or even to invest the time that such writing takes – and the depth of communication it implies.

Yet in the gently moving and heartfelt play “Missives” by Garret Jon Groenveld, the premise largely works precisely because the characters engage in an increasingly arcane form of communication.

“Missives,” “The Poor Itch” deliver harrowing, character-rich theater.

Ben and Lia meet in person only a few times over the course of their multi-year relationship, but it is nonetheless one of the most intimate either of them ever has. Ben is a gay man and Lia an African-American woman, two people who would not necessarily connect on such an intimate level in the “real” world, and while that seems a bit labored as a device, it still becomes feasible in the context of “a big city,” where the play is set.

MISSIVES

59E59 Theaters

59 E. 59th St.,

Tue.-Sat. at 8:30 p.m.;

Sun. at 3:30 p.m.

$18; 212-279-4200

So don't look for verisimilitude. One has to accept that Ben would initiate the conversation in the first place and that Lia, for all her initial resistance, would be seduced by the words and the chance to be her unfiltered self. Groenveld, who is also a poet, understands the power of words, belief, and, yes, poetry, to cement a bond between two people and there are some flights of lyricism in the script that are truly extraordinary.

Over the course of the play, we hear about events happening in Lia's life – her marriage, the birth of a son, and so forth. We see the events that happen to Ben – finding and then losing a boyfriend, Steven, and the arrival of a mysterious sociopath, Freddie, whom we ultimately believe is responsible for Ben's disappearance.

There are also intermittent appearances from Trixie, the star of a soap opera that both Ben and Lia are addicted to. The inherent falseness of Trixie's on-screen exploits stand in solid opposition to the certainly less dramatic though more real interaction between Ben and Lia. It's comic relief to be sure, but also a wry commentary on the quality and level of much of the communication in our lives.

The production gets much of its impact from the wonderful work of the cast. Shamika Cotton as Lia gives a rich and nuanced performance that has a great deal of depth and real feeling. She is a wonderful actor, capable of making the abstractions of the script believable.

Richard Gallagher is exceptional as Ben. His effusiveness and, flamboyant gayness are held in check by a barely perceptible undercurrent of sadness and naiveté about how the world works. For all his would-be sophistication, Ben is essentially an adorable innocent, whose struggle to find an outlet in the poetic notes he writes Lia.

Ryan Tresser is very good in the small role of Steven, and Jay Randall is appropriately creepy as the sociopath Freddie. Ashley West appears only on-screen as Trixie, but she manages to be both straightforward and satirical at the same time.

Elizabeth Kleinhans' direction keeps the story moving and manages the crucial device of characters appearing on the stage at the same time, but not meeting.

Ultimately, “Missives” is a play of love and loss that, for all its poetry, has a core of honesty and a wistfulness about the dissolution of connection that results when messaging replaces writing.

Iraq has been dramatic fodder for several seasons, and is likely to continue to be so. This unfinished war has only glanced off the national psyche, and so far the long-term effects are unknown. And yet, with an administration that hides coffins and cuts veterans' benefits, the impact has not even begun to be felt.

While plays that have dealt with the macro issues surrounding the war have fallen flat, the human crises it has caused are the stuff compelling plays are made of. John Belluso's “The Poor Itch” was unfinished and in many drafts at the time of his death.

As part of the Public Lab program at The Public, Lisa Peterson and an extraordinary cast of actors crafted the pieces into a coherent play. While presented, in a run that just ended, as a work in progress, the play still had a heartbreaking impact that cuts through the overwrought politics of many plays and the easy avoidance and arm's-length coverage of the mass media.

The story concerns Ian, a man who lost the use of legs in Iraq and who is fighting to get his benefits. As he heals and tries to get back into life, he confronts the horrors of war in his dreams. He must also confront the wreckage he can't seem to stop creating with his family and friends.

The piece is structured around the finished scenes, sometimes repeated with elements from different drafts of the script. Unwritten scenes are described by the actors, and the result is far more complex and comprehensive than might seem evident at first. In fact, the lack of resolution in the script mirrors precisely the unresolved – and continually changing – relationship we have with this war.

Moreover, Belluso does not bang the anti-war drum, but rather explores the choices people are required to make. How refreshing to actually see characters on the stage, rather than polemics in human shape.

The extraordinary and accomplished cast brought this tale to life in a highly compelling and moving way. Christopher Thornton, disabled in real life, gave a particularly rich portrayal of Ian. The audience was left wondering if his character's real disability is mental and emotional rather than physical.

Deirdre O'Connell, who shines in everything she does, delivered a beautiful performance as Coral, Ian's mother. Michael Chernus was exceptional as Ian's best friend Curt, but it was Susan Pourfar who broke your heart as Erica, Curt's pregnant girlfriend who once loved Ian and is as lost as he is.

Belluso's writing is as raw and gripping as it was in, most notably, “Pyretown,” which featured Thornton and O'Connell in New York. As emotionally charged as “The Poor Itch” is, the truly shocking realization is that with Belluso's death in 2006, the theater lost an important and vibrant voice.

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