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Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

When Brad Fraser originally wrote Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Osama bin Laden had not yet entered the United States's national consciousness. But after the events of September 11, this macabre comic drama resonates even more poignantly.

Granted, this production, which was directed by Robert Bella and is playing at the Lion Theatre through April 11, features some textual alterations (apparently made with Fraser's permission) to heighten these connections. But the play's original theme, about the difficulty of finding love or identity in an uncertain and often bloody world, has perhaps never been this pointed and powerful.

The play gains much of its strength from its non-linear construction, which often finds words and characters appearing and disappearing in seconds, seeming to exist as nothing more than wistful echoes of unrealized feelings and all-too realized fears. The characters have much to be fearful of: a serial killer is terrorizing New York women, and as each character has his or her own set of insecurities and secrets, no one feels safe, alone or with others.

It's a complex piece, weaving together black humor and violent seriousness, but Bella proves a nearly ideal director, embracing both the light and dark, and negotiating the script's difficult staging requirements with ease. Gary Levinson's set, which depicts two New York apartments and a generic restaurant area, allows scenes to flow fluidly, while Eric Southern's lights highlight just the right speeches or characters, making a potentially confusing play work beautifully.

Despite how much else in this production is excitingly right, it is eventually rendered mostly inert by its actors. Under better circumstances, their casting might be ideal - many seem to have the right physical and personality traits to bring this group of seven flawed young people to life. But currently, despite the hard work they all do, no one yet has a firm grip on his or her role.

That's particularly damaging to the central role of David, the most emotionally lost character. He was in California on September 11, and is now trying to re-integrate himself to the friends he left behind to pursue a television career that has now fizzled out. He's now finding that he can't connect with anyone emotionally, and has taken to satisfying his needs in meaningless and dangerous sexual promiscuity. But Brandon Thompson barely taps into David's pain and lacks the charisma to evoke sympathy as a one-time Hollywood heartthrob facing an unbearable future of normalcy.

David's roommate Candy throws herself into her pursuit of fitness, but can't commit to personal relationships; Lauren Castellano never captures the sexual confliction that leads Candy into the beds of both men and women. Joe Stipek plays Bernie, David and Candy's troubled long-time friend, with a consistent sense of humor, but a manic, brooding nature that belies the outwardly normal appearance the character needs. Diana Ascher fails to reconcile her character Benita's dual natures as both psychic storyteller and lustful siren, while Andrew Frost outrageously overplays his role as David's underage admirer.

The two most convincing performances come from Caroline Cagney and Greg Jackson as Candy's competing lovers, Jerri and Robert. Cagney's portrayal of her obsessive-compulsive character is the best-formed example in the play of someone losing control of her most visceral desires, though she's stronger in her dramatic scenes than in her comic ones. Jackson deserves plaudits as the only cast member to underplay his role; that has the benefit of making him appear the most realistic person onstage, but casts a somewhat untruthful light on Robert's later emotional development.

But if Cagney and Jackson aren't able to liven up the proceedings quite often enough, the other performers can't completely dampen the play's impact. Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love remains an important play, but this production might be best experienced toward the end of its run, at which time the actors will hopefully be more adeptly communicating the messages Fraser and Bella have so compellingly presented.

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Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love
Through April 11
Theatre Row / The Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge