nytheatre.com review by Jon Stancato
August 17, 2006
With one foot grounded firmly in the realm of sketch comedy and the other resting on a cluttered undergrad's desk filled with Freud, a handful of books on postmodern critical theory, and some back-issues of the New York Times, Theater Oobleck's Letter Purloined is certainly a unique theatrical experience. So unique, in fact, that by virtue of the show's gimmick, the audience never sees the same performance twice.
David Isaacson has written a mystery, comprised of 26 chronological scenes, each designated with a letter from the alphabet. Each performance, these scenes are shuffled into a new order: 13 scenes, intermission, and then 13 scenes. The play is a pastiche of Othello's handkerchief plot, littered with references to Lacan, Derrida, Poe, Kofi Annan, and Bosnian war-criminal Radovan Karadžić, among many others. The conniving court servant Ogai (pronounced "oh-ga-ee," and yes, that's Iago backwards) is married to the ex-hippie-cum-police-superintendent Ordina (who worships order—her hippie name was Orgasma; you can guess what she liked then) and together they scheme (and undermine each other's schemes) to weave a tangled love-square around the poetic despot Navodar (yes, that's Radovan backwards), his psychoanalyst queen Diri (longing to be someone's "deary"), special prosecutor Bianca (investigating "the slaughter of the innocents"), and General Cassio (whose "dialogue" is limited to humming unfortunately obscure songs).
In the performance I attended, letters A, B, Y, and Z, as well as a good chunk of the alphabet's middle were all in the first act. With the play's mystery fully disclosed, what brought me back for Act II? Honestly: this review. Though the cast's energy and enthusiasm is infectious and though it's always fun to play "spot that allusion," Isaacson's text simply isn't dramatic, revelatory, clever, or humorous enough to be sustained for two and a half hours no matter what order it's told in. And the play is so flooded with quips about meaning, logic, and order, that with a structure that actually mirrors its content, it sometimes feels like putting chocolate sauce on a Hershey's kiss: too much of a good thing.
Still, there are some really winning scenes, like Y (the show's opener, that night), in which Bianca reads a suicide note forged in General Cassio's (musical) short-hand. "Mama, I've just killed a man," it begins, always one paraphrased step ahead of the absent lyrics in an orchestral version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" that plays in the background.
While never venturing much deeper than a better-than-average sketch of Saturday Night Live, the cast is tremendously likable, but Oobleck's mission statement ("We don't work with a director") does these talented performers quite a disservice as they often seem, well, directionless, and Letter's pacing could use a clearer sense of crescendo and denouement. But Kat McJimsey is a firecracker as the spunky Ordina, Colm O'Reilly is oddly affecting as General Cassio, even (or especially) when his character's lyric(al) conceit doesn't quite work, and Heather Riordan's mastery of Diri's speedy psychobabble is a hoot from A-Z. As an ensemble, they often make it easy to forget that they've never actually performed the play that the audience is witnessing.
So, while not as funny as great sketch comedy or as scintillating as great critical theory, Letter Purloined makes for an entertaining hour. Unfortunately, it's more than twice that long, so until Isaacson learns to tell the story with half as many letters, you'll have to decide if the evening is worth the investment.