It's as though the creative team considers the play some sort of mystery grab-bag gift and is inviting the audience to unwrap it and discover the surprise. Fans of Lucas' other works (Reckless, Blue Window, Prelude to a Kiss) will be disappointed that the playwright's familiar standard -- fractured reality leading to an epiphany -- never quite materializes in Missing Persons.
It begins promisingly enough with a woman asleep in a chair by a desk. This is Addie Pencke (Joy Carlin), mother of Hat (James Newcomb) and ex-wife of Tucker (James Carpenter). A naked man -- identity unknown for the moment, but he turns out to be Steve (Dylan Kussman), a dimwitted grocery clerk -- scurries out onto the landing directly above her and empties a sheaf of papers that fall on her like leaves. She revels in them for a brief, playful moment, and then awakens, disoriented. Hat appears, wishes her a happy Thanksgiving, and mournfully reports that his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Joan (Zachary Barton), has brought the naked man home. Addie curses, dashes into the kitchen, and takes the turkey, which she's forgotten to thaw, from the freezer. It will sit like a rock on the butcher block table for most of the first act, a glaring reminder of the state of relationships in this chilly home.
Addie is a critic and professor of English. Hat is an unpublished poet who hauls slag for a living, and the papers that rained down on Addie as she slept were his verses. When he finds them scattered all over the floor, he assumes she's taken them from his desk and is outraged at this violation of his privacy. With his next breath he's dying to know what she thinks. She tries to demur, but he insists, and she delivers a dry appraisal that includes the advice, "Before you go shattering forms, you should prove that you're capable of honoring them."
Almost at once the lights change, the walls become transparent, the world is skewed, and we have arrived in Craig Lucas-Land. Past and future occur simultaneously as the young Hat (Eli Marienthal) appears to Addie bearing a report card with a shocking C in English. Long-gone husband Tucker pops out of a closet with a draft of a poem for Addie's assessment. The adult Hat replays the scene in which Joan asks him for a divorce, and on the sidelines Gemma (Marceline Hugot), a young widow with three children, makes a poignant pitch for Hat's romantic attention.
The Missing Persons parallel universe is a control freak's extended nightmare. A whimsical, lopsided place in which the perfectionists (Hat as well as Addie) must come to terms with their own crippling standards and where everything is off-kilter: People burst out of closets, refrigerators, and sofas; life-shifting moments are continually replayed; strangers appear in the bosom of the family.
Then there's Thanksgiving, which provides metaphors aplenty: Along with the turkey that refuses to thaw is a sense that these people are literally (and unsuccessfully) trying to stuff their feelings. Symbolism is rampant, along with philosophical interpretation, but straight lines are resolutely followed by punch lines and no coherent dramatic strategy emerges. Even the final scene -- a sweet reconciliation of sorts -- functions as mere icing on a half-baked cake.
The performances are energetic, warm, and appealing, but none leaps out as particularly inspired. Everyone seems underused somehow. Joy Carlin delivers Addie's acerbic and witty rejoinders in proper, low-key fashion, but (as becomes clear in the program's interview with the playwright) this is supposed to be Addie's play. Her struggle with (as Lucas puts it) "the warring forces in her own psyche" should determine the action and lead to an epiphany of some sort. Carlin's Addie comes across as impatient and irritated at how easily the egos around her can be bruised. And while there's a grudging acknowledgment that she will come to learn "poetry is not made of masterpieces but of failures," this insight is Tucker's, not hers.
As the doubly cursed Hat (hypersensitive and hypercritical), James Newcomb is plaintive and adolescent, and it's difficult to understand Gemma's worshipful attention. He seems stunned to find that his inner critical voice sounds -- shock, horror! -- just like Mom's.
Zachary Barton and Marceline Hugot are almost equally underutilized, each having made powerful impressions in the past with brilliantly comic and sexually charged performances -- Barton, most recently, in ACT's Dark Rapture (Eric Overmyer), and Hugot in the Berkeley Rep's unforgettable Changes of Heart (Marivaux).
Dylan Kussman makes the most of slow-witted Steve, the good-looking vision from Addie's dream, who has found himself without a home for the holidays. Oblivious to the drama unfolding around him and unencumbered by ideas of any kind, Kussman's Steve is the only one of this crowd who can make himself at home.
James Carpenter gives Tucker an exuberant sexual presence which lets us in on what made him so appealing to Addie and what, too, led him to disappear from her life with such shocking finality. (Every time he dashes out, replaying his final exit yet again, the slamming door sounds like a gunshot.)
Young Eli Marienthal does a fine job with the 11-year-old version of Hat, but the laughs he gets are unforgivably cheap, the result of his spouting banal profanity and parroting the adult Hat's perceptions.
There are plenty of cheap laughs in Missing Persons, which never develops beyond the level of sitcom in spite of its promising beginning. Nice touches of staging by director Penny Metropulos -- such as the way the young Hat and the adult Hat mirror each other's actions -- can't overcome the scattershot structure. The plain-wrapped set becomes an ironic comment on a play that struggles to extricate itself but never manages to break out of its alluring package.
Missing Persons runs through May 26 at Berkeley Repertory Theater; call (510) 845-4700.