REVIEW: Dead Letter Office (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival

 

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Dog & Pony Theatre presents
   
Dead Letter Office
   
by Phillip Dawkins
directed by
David Dieterich Gray
at
Storefront Theater (DCA), 66 E. Randolph (map)
through July 18  |  tickets: $17-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The concept of a dead letter office, the place where undeliverable mail retires, is ripe with theatrical metaphor. What is the existential condition of those letters that can’t go backwards or forwards? How do the employees feel about rummaging through an anonymous person’s mail? With such questions, and others, it is surprising no one Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 007 has mined this before. Dog & Pony Theatre took the chance to grab onto this fresh idea and commissioned scribe Phillip Dawkins to write a play around it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece, Dead Letter Office, doesn’t deliver. The production dabbles in a few styles and storylines, but never makes a decision concerning what it ultimately wants to be.

Dawkins sets his story around office veteran Christian (John Fenner Mays) and his budding relationship with newbie Je’ Taime (Kristen Magee). Like the wayward parcels surrounding them, the two have dubious pasts. Je’ Taime has worked careers more fitting for her moniker, and Christian used to be a boxer but then he killed a guy. Dawkins’ exposition and storylines seem to recycle plot-points yanked out of everything from Spring Awakening to Pulp Fiction. Unlike the dead letter office setting, these backstories are stale. Through the course of the play, we also get to see saccharine Agatha (Susan Price) gradually “go postal,” and boss Rolo (Joshua Volkers) be creepy.

The script is wildly uneven. Act One is staunch realism and drags along at a sleepy pace. By the second act, the play has become a ghost story a la Piano Lesson. At an unintentionally farcical speed, the characters (especially Je’ Taime) rip away layers, revealing abuse and self-destruction. In one awkward scene, Je’ Taime asks Christian to punch away so “she can feel something.” I’m fine with wacky, screwed-up plays (which it seems every young, male playwright has to write), but that sort of gritty ridiculousness has to be introduced early and often. Here, it comes out of nowhere. Most of the last hour is unearned, and the production devolves into a messy conclusion.

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Part of the problem can be pinned on the process of this production. It was mere weeks ago Dawkins was commissioned to write the piece, which had everything (actors, director, concept) but a script. So it’s understandable (and forgivable) that he turned to hackneyed and scattershot plots and characters.

The most gratifying element of this production is the design. It’s friggin’ amazing. William Anderson’s USPS office is wonderfuly cluttered with all the mismatched objects you would expect to find in such a bizarre place. The most whimsical aspect of the whole production is the giant chute that spills out all sorts of things (I was expecting a dead body to fly out at one point, but, alas, we can’t get everything we hope for). When Aaron Weissman’s lights, Stephen Ptacek’s eerie sound design, and Catherine Tantillo’s spot-on costumes are added to the mix, the production is given a creaky yet beautiful shell. It’s a shame the actual play doesn’t live up to it.

It takes more than a concept to drive art forward – no matter what the medium is – else you end up with a heady, theme-over-content mess. Dead Letter Office isn’t that far gone. Mays does great work as the icy Christian, making the production watchable. Another standout is Volkers, who is quick to find the comedy in Dawkins’ welcoming text.

Hopefully, director Dieterich Gray and Dog & Pony will learn from this experience. They have heart and talent, obviously. Even when fertilized with such a great idea, without a healthy base of character and story, any commissioned piece is going to grow stunted and wilted. Perhaps one should allow Dead Letter Office be a growing pain, and leave it at that.

   
    
Rating: ★½
   
   

Extra Credit:

Productions Personnel

Playwright: Phillip Dawkins
Director: Dieterich Gray
Featuring: Kristen Magee,John Fenner Mays, Susan Price, Joshua Volkers
Light Design: Aaron Weissman
Sound Design: Stephen Ptacek
Set Design: William Anderson
Costumes: Catherine Tantillo
Fight Choreography: Shannon O’Neill
Stage Manager: Simone Gianfrancesco

     
      

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