Without a Trace

A play that generates more questions than answers isn't such a bad thing

If you choose to vanish, we're told early on in Madagascar, you probably won't be found. Nine out of ten people who disappear most likely prefer to remain lost. What happens then? The answers are not easy, but they can be surprising, as is J.T. Rogers' Madagascar.

This delicate, ineffably moving play is splendidly acted by the trio of Kathryn Lee Johnston, Angie Radosh, and Bill Schwartz. It's a directorial tour de force for Ricky J. Martinez, whose fine-tuned ear for subtle mood changes and dizzying reversals of direction add up to an exhilarating theatrical triumph for this Florida premiere. In particular, Martinez's attention to gestural detail is touching and true: the stillness of a mother's hands as she contemplates the loss of her son, the wild and nervous hands of a giddy airline passenger, the caressing hands that reach out even when there is no longer anyone there to caress. Frankly, the Madagascarset is drab, but the words are brilliant, and the characters carry an air of mystery that enfolds the audience from the start. The action is minimal, the plot is not what one might expect, and the dramatic structure is deliciously nonlinear, criss-crossing decades with Proustian ease. Even the loss that casts a shadow on the mood of all three characters is not what we presume it to be. Three people have been hurt, and all three find themselves in the same hotel room in what appears to be different times. Or perhaps not.

The location itself exudes an air of uncertainty, of overripe flowers and crumbling civilizations, of real flesh and the passing of time. In a hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome, June, a lovely young woman dressed in pajamas, sits on a bed and, musing to herself, proclaims there is no such thing as coincidence. She is not alone in the room, it turns out, or at least not as far as the audience can see. An elegant, older woman emerges from the shadows, wearing a timeless faux Chanel suit. Lillian is oblivious to the girl on the bed, yet very at home in the room and familiar with the loneliness implied therein. A third character, a man, eventually finds himself there too. His relation to the two women or to the two absent men in their lives is, at first, anything but clear. Only one thing is certain: Someone has disappeared, perhaps forever, perhaps simply having fled to an exotic place like Madagascar. Someone has died.

We do learn more, of course. June works as a tour guide in Rome and leads visitors from the Forum's ruins to the Spanish Steps. Her private grief is portrayed with elegant detail by Johnston, as is the search for her lost brother. Lillian -- the best-drawn character, brought to life with discretion and precision by Radosh -- is June's wealthy mother, urbane and well-traveled, well-acquainted with grief after the appalling double loss of husband and son. Nathan, played with perhaps slightly less masterful control by Schwartz, is a scruffy academic who knew them all, including the departed. Nathan's odd, shocking confrontation with the missing son is a major point in the plot, but it too is evanescent and matters less than the gusts of sadness that flow through their affairs.

The echoes here are many, of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer and especially of his Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, in which the heroine spies her tragic fate from a window overlooking the Spanish Steps. There are structural memories of Edward Albee's masterpiece Three Tall Women and of Terrence McNally's minor Full Frontal Nudity. Rogers' courage and willingness to write in long arias also puts him in the mainstream of the richest American traditions, from O'Neil to Tony Kushner. All of this is worth noting not to say that originality is lacking here but rather the opposite: Rogers is a major new American talent, and Madagascar is a play to cheer.

What we have is a ravishing new work by a young playwright: His White People was a recent a hit for New Theater, and his work in progress, The Overwhelming,was scheduled to receive a free public reading this past weekend in the Madagascar set. Acclaim has not eluded Rogers: Originally commissioned by the Salt Lake Acting Company, Madagascar received the American Theatre Critics Association's 2004 Elizabeth Osborn Award. So far this year, Madagascar's honors have included the University of Tampa's Pinter Review Prize -- a particularly welcome award for any playwright because it includes publication of his play. The author was on hand at Friday night's presentation of the award and the book at New Theatre. It was a thrilling prologue to what turned out to be a superb evening of theater.

Madagascar may not be a perfect play. It explains away too much of its own mystery by the Act One curtain, and it would likely work better without an intermission. A connection between the actual plot and a piece of ancient art -- with all the unknowability that might imply -- seems forced near the end. Still, these are quibbles. Madagascaris witty, serious, and touching. It is literate -- save for a few solecisms that mar its otherwise elegant language, perhaps only though as nicotine stains can mar a dazzling smile. Reality, often, is not perfect either. The play's many moments of reality are small, tiny pinpricks that mark the passing of time: the dread of sitting next to a stranger on a plane and having to answer the inevitable question: "What do you do?" The urge to lie -- and not only to strangers. The weight of guilt and the heaviness of betrayal or of missed chances; the tension of waiting in a hotel room for a son who seems to be terribly late or a lover, much later still. Of realizing the wait is over. Of recognizing loss, of thinking and rethinking the whole affair over and over in the hope of understanding.

"The longer you know someone, the less you can say," whispers one of Rogers' characters near the play's end. We have learned a lot by then, perhaps even too much. So this poignant sonata of grief called Madagascar closes like a perfect chamber score, in powerful silence, in rest. Yet, there is something distressingly familiar about the unhappiness that drenches the family at the heart of Madagascar.June, Lillian, and Nathan, as written by this playwright and as intelligently directed by Martinez, come alive. All three have been hurt in some way, and each could use a rest. And as the play jumps madly from past to present to fantasy, all three come to grips with the unknown. It is a devastating, improbably quiet moment of truth.

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