Essential Theatre: When Things Are Lost

Last night I saw Derek Dixon’s “When Things Are Lost” staged by Essential Theatre as part of their 2016 Play Festival. It had a lot of potential but, unfortunately, due to some sloppy characterization and trying a bit too hard to be surreal, this potential wasn’t realized. However, I think that the playwright found a good way to tell a very important and touching story and hope that there will be a rewrite in the future.

The play is about Andrew’s quest to find his best friend, Michael, who has gone missing. The play begins with him in a fugue state, not really knowing where he is, and progresses like this for about 40% of the show until he finds out for sure what happened to Michael. It’s going to be difficult to talk about this play without revealing the twist that occurs in the middle, so if you don’t like spoilers then skip to the concluding paragraph.

Andrew goes from one surreal experience to another until he finally finds himself in Michael’s apartment, where he discovers that Michael had committed suicide a week prior. At this point, Andrew meets a large, pink bunny, who is played by a stranger that he had met in the first scene. This bunny sends Andrew through a door which leads Andrew to relive some of the experiences in Michael’s life that lead to his suicide. Michael, it turns out, was gay, was horribly harassed when young for being so, and felt alienated for the entire rest of his life. He was also abused by his father, which Andrew finds out after he stops reliving Michael’s experiences and drives to meet Michael’s brother Scott. In the end, Andrew has a better understanding of who Michael was, what he went through, and he gives a touching eulogy for his friend. It’s like a cross between Freaky Friday, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Harvey while trying just a tad too much to be like Jose Rivera’s Marisol.

The first thing that stood out to me about this play is that, by the end of the play, I realized that I had no idea who the hell Andrew was or what his relationship to Michael was. There is nearly zero characterization of the man from whose perspective the entire play is told. We aren’t told why he doesn’t know much about his friend’s past or his later feelings. We aren’t told why he needs to go on this journey of discovery to understand why his friend killed himself. Was he insensitive? Was the friendship more superficial to him due to the constraints of the masculine gender role or was Michael standoffish for other reasons? Or maybe Andrew is just a jerk and he and Michael were only best friends because neither could find someone better. We don’t know any of this but we’re expected to care about Andrew’s journey of discovery and it’s very hard to do so until he learns enough about Michael for us to want to follow along just to learn more about him.

Because we don’t know who this guy is, we have no reason to care about Andrew for the first 2/5 of the play while he’s having a bunch of pseudo-surreal encounters that, for the most part, don’t advance the story much at all. Act one scene one has us watching a bewildered Michael be incredibly rude to a very friendly, albeit strange, guy at a bus stop. Then, in an inconsistent change of (non)character, we follow him as he does his best to placate a bunch of people who are hostile towards him. He doesn’t say anything about who he is or why he’s looking for his friend. He doesn’t actually describe Michael at all, which is a bit odd considering that he’s trying to get people to talk about him. Nobody gives him any information and the scenes don’t really seem to have that much bearing on the story at all. A scene in an airport along with the following scene in a Paris café don’t even seem to be germane to the play at all and probably should have been cut and saved for some future work.

I used the term pseudo-surreal because all of the encounters come across less as twisted reality and more just nonsense. Everything and everyone is very confrontational with no real reason to be so. It’s not clear why Andrew is hostile towards the strange man in the beginning nor why anyone else is confrontational towards him in the subsequent scenes. It doesn’t create a dream/nightmare-like atmosphere nor is it unsettling so much as it just comes across as disjointed and nonsensical. The scenes in the airport and Paris should really be dropped and the others should be less confrontational and, instead, give Andrew a chance to show us who he is and what Michael meant to him. Without this, there is no reason to include any of these scenes at all because, even though the characters are revisited later, the story is neither advanced nor enhanced by them.

We don’t really see anything resembling story development until Andrew finds himself filing a missing persons report at a police station. The police officer helps Andrew remember talking about suicide with Michael. Then Andrew goes to Micheal’s apartment where a giant pink bunny tells him that he should walk through a glowing door if he wants to understand what lead to Michael’s suicide.

If the intermission had happened at that point, I would have walked out with the couple in the front row. Fortunately, the intermission was a little later so I ended up staying and seeing what happened next: Andrew lives as Michael and goes through the alienation of his first job and being alone in a new city, being harassed for being gay when he wore a dress to a school dance, and hanging out with his best friend from grade-school who talks about how she rejected him at first when he came out to her and then dismisses him in the present day when he tries to comfort her about something else by telling her that she’s beautiful because he’s gay.

These scenes are coherent and, although I could personally relate to them, I found myself wondering if Andrew could. Since I don’t know anything about his relationship with Michael, I don’t know if Andrew may have unintentionally hurt him with a “friendly” jab here or a rude comment about his sexuality there. Does he understand why these would be such painful experiences? Does he really understand why Michael had to withdraw into an imagined world with a swaggering, Latin lover? Throughout the scenes, he’s rather reluctant to accept what’s going on, so I didn’t really feel like he would be able to, although the whole point of the play is that he did.

The bizarre body switching then sort of petered out without any real explanation while Andrew was at Michael’s Aunt’s house. We learn that something horrible happened to Michael that made him run away and live with her instead of his mother and father. The Aunt is quirky and there are ambiguous hints that she might be unstable. We’re not really sure until the end that Andrew is Andrew again but we don’t know why or why Michael’s Aunt would be ok with that. There’s a bizarre moment where the Aunt comes after Andrew/Michael with a long knife and says something about his need to have better confidence and presence in a room, though I couldn’t tell if this was supposed to be explaining another source of trauma for Michael or if she’s just crazy and weird. Overall, this scene is just too poorly defined.

Although the Aunt doesn’t explain what happened to Michael at his parents house, she directs Andrew to Michael’s brother, Scott, in Wyoming. We’re treated to a completely out of place scene that, like the airport and Paris scenes, seems to be there just to be weird and doesn’t advance the story at all. Aside from a reference by a stranger to Michael wearing a dress at the dance, there’s no real connection to any other part of the play and that little reference probably does more to defang the painful memory than accomplishing anything else.

After a brief scene with the strange man from act one scene one to put that scene into a rather unuseful context, we meet Michael’s brother Scott at a grocery store. We had also seen this character earlier when Andrew was in a fugue state and they had a bit of a conflict so he has Andrew thrown out of the store. He then, for little reason other than the fact that the story must move on, comes out to see Andrew. After accusing Andrew of trying to lay the blame for Michael’s death on his family and then trying to accuse Andrew of being the cause of Michael’s death (which we would never know since we know nothing about their friendship), he finally tells Andrew about how his father would beat Michael for not being masculine enough. This is done with Andrew experiencing the abuse as Michael again.

This wasn’t such a bad bit but it also didn’t seem very realistic. Scott and Andrew had fought in their first meeting and no reason is ever given to us for Scott to open up to Andrew. If the first pseudo-surreal encounter had never happened or it was less confrontational and gave Scott (and us) a chance to know something about Andrew being a decent fellow who loved Michael then it would have been more solid.

Michael leaves Wyoming and goes back to Michael’s apartment where he begins to put a noose around his neck and kill himself the way that Michael did (although in a different part of the apartment) only to be interrupted by the actress who played Michael’s aunt singing Amazing Grace. He takes the noose from his neck and she says things about never wanting harm to come to him and we find out that she’s his mother and then Andrew gives a touching eulogy to his friend.

The funeral wasn’t bad, but the preceding scene was poorly defined. Here we don’t know if Andrew is Michael or himself. We don’t know whose mother this is, either. Since it looks like Michael’s aunt, it’s easiest to assume that it’s Michael’s mother. However, she was the person who stood by while Michael was being abused and told her sister that Michael was just being dramatic when he ran away (and never came home). Even if she felt the words that she said, she has some explaining to do. Either she needs to come to a realization about what she should have done or Andrew as Michael needs to either forgive her or give up on being understood by her.

I’d rather have Michael’s mother come in on Andrew as Andrew trying on the noose and talking about how he is starting to understand. She could talk about how she should have been there for Michael when his father was abusive instead of finding ways to excuse it to herself or convince herself that it’s not that bad. Have the violence have been be more verbal bullying and harassment than physical so that she can shrug it off, but show how harsh it was. Or have Michael finally stand up to him and that’s when it gets physical and that’s why he leaves. It can be just one backhand across the face, something that the mother can shrug off as punishment for Michael talking back. Then we can have Andrew talk about how he feels that he overlooked too many things, too, and is only now realizing that he wasn’t there for Michael and really wishes that he had been.

If Dixon cut out the scenes that have absolutely nothing to do with the story and rework the other early scenes so that they are less about senseless confrontations and more about Andrew trying to explain who he is and what Michael meant to him as he searches for him then this would be a much stronger play. Dixon can still have Michael lost and confused and these scenes can still be dreamlike, surreal, and even a little threatening but they need to either advance or frame the story and not risk undermining later relationships. Throw in a scene of Andrew as Michael experiencing aspects of their friendship through Michael’s eyes, perhaps with the bunny dressed in Andrew’s clothes and we might have an incredibly moving play. Dixon has a good format for telling this story and, with a little more work, the play could meaningfully touch a lot of people.

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