The production certainly begins arrestingly as a trio of stories collides onstage, with Dave (Matt Barbot) and Charlie (Wilton Yeung) half-kiddingly roughhousing while Wyatt (Will Turner) narrates a tale of journeying up the Nile to confront a group of Dervishes, and a voiceover -- presumably from the hooded performer (Veracity Butcher) center stage-- pleads for help. Underlying this seriocomic opening are projections, often difficult to read on a loosely hung sheet, from designer Dan Durkin, which offer cunning and cutting passages, such as “Every man is stupid and without knowledge” from “The Book of Lamentations.”
Jones’ script soon attempts to bridge the stories, generally using the character of Josie (Butcher), a child orphaned during the 1898 British raid on Omdurman whom we encounter at myriad ages, even as it adds others. During the course of the overcrowded 60-minute piece, “Letter” addresses everything from modern day vigilantism to the experiments conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s to determine the validity of Adolf Eichmann’s assertion that the atrocities of the Holocaust were committed by people just following orders.
It’s really impossible to miss the fact that the diverse stories are united by an underlying current of preening male bravado, but there is a sense of randomness to the piece that undermines its potency, particularly when the more cutting sections are placed alongside ones like a drunken tirade from Charlie, shrilly performed by Yeung and filled with silly surreal details about his childhood: “After that I hid out in the basement/ Fortunately, Mom took pity on me/ Left out little bags of carrots at the top of the stairs.”
Ultimately, it’s the performances that pull theatergoers through the work. Turner’s uberly dry, drawling turn as Wyatt is utter delight. He manages to embody the sort of cardboard cutout swagger that one associates with 1950s oaters, even as he infuses the caricature with genuine warmth and a winking knowingness. Similarly, Butcher brings an affecting benumbed bluntness to the piece, both in her turn as Josie and as the sometimes narrator of Jones’ fact and fiction-filled stories.
And though Yeung and Tuner are more often than not called upon to play the dimwitted violence-prone clowns, both demonstrate felicity with the dramatic aspects of the script, particularly Barbot, who delivers the show’s final -- and best -- monologue, a haunting allegory about a man who finds himself repeatedly welcomed at a hotel even though during previous visits, he has behaved destructively and abominably.
Presented by and at the Flea Theater as part of the New Play Festival, 41 White St., NYC. May 13-27. Schedule varies. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com, or www.theflea.org.