Ken Urban’s The Correspondent, a spooky but curiously unsatisfying mélange of ghost story tropes with some modern, androgynous tweaking, plays like a pervier version of the 1990 film Ghost. Both feature an African-American medium, streetwise and possibly shady, who helps a person in grief try to will a deceased party back into existence (though Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown is definitely more fun) as well as a third-party interloper whose creepy identity is slowly revealed. Unlike Ghost’s oddly delicate balancing act, however, Urban’s challenging yet patchy Off Broadway play never finds a confident rhythm.
Henry Fool’s Thomas Jay Ryan gives a subtle, well-modulated portrayal of wracked guilt as Philip Graves (yup, you read that last name right), a wealthy lawyer who enlists the help of Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms), a no-nonsense representative of a web company that promises the ability to commune with the dead. (Philip seems a bit too easily to fall for this gambit, a plot point that needs more fleshing out.) When Philip starts to receive letters in the pen and manner of his late wife, he starts to believe in afterlife contact. Or is this all a scam whipped up by Mirabel’s employer? And what’s with the mysterious person (Jordan Geiger) who lingers around Philip’s building and is caught on camera entering the premises?
For a while, director Stephen Brackett’s moody production (especially Eric Southern’s haunting lighting design) holds your attention. But the gothic tone occasionally sneaks out of the proceedings, with some strange, comic-tinged asides that seem jarring in a play that is otherwise so utterly serious. (In one ‘huh?’ moment, Philip gingerly unpacks Steve Martin’s legendary line in L.A. Story about playing with his breasts all day if he were a woman.) Urban’s work teems with provocative notions, like the idea that the soul might exist outside of gender. But The Correspondent is so out there that even Oda Mae Brown might eventually shake her head at it. C+