The two-night revival of “Gone Missing” at New York City Center is both a very good show and a very bad, very cosmic joke. Because this documentary song cycle is about loss: of minds, rings, a dog, the hour badly spent. And the irretrievable loss, the one you can hear in pretty much every plink and strum from the onstage band, is the loss of the show’s composer, Michael Friedman, who died a year ago from AIDS-related complications. Which makes “Gone Missing” an accidental and indispensable elegy.
The show, which has a book by Steven Cosson, was originally created and performed by The Civilians theater company in 2003. It was built on more-or-less verbatim interviews that company members conducted with both people who have lost things and people whose job it is to find them. Mr. Cosson arranged the interviews into a series of monologues, and Peter Morris dreamed up some public radio-style segments, while Friedman composed songs that expanded, sweetly and tartly, on the themes that emerged.
The songs range — any Friedman score (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “The Fortress of Solitude,” “Pretty Filthy”) is almost necessarily rangy — from mariachi to Burt Bacharach bossa nova. Some of the anecdotes that connect them are cute, and some are alarming. Good luck forgetting the crack about a “Colombian necktie.” Most are funny, including a prized bit about an actress who lost a shoe at P.S. 122 back when it was still called P.S. 122.
As the cop who defines the Colombian necktie says, sometimes humor is the only way to meet horrifying loss: “You got to laugh. You just got to laugh.”
Ken Rus Schmoll directs a six-person cast for this production, part of the Encores! Off-Center season: Taylor Mac, Susan Blackwell, David Ryan Smith, Deborah S. Craig and John Behlmann, alongside the longtime Civilians member Aysan Celik. The setting is minimal, the costumes pleasantly generic, Karla Puno Garcia’s choreography decidedly low profile and Mr. Schmoll’s direction affectionate and barely there. The actors still carry scripts, though that is no bar to Mr. Mac’s dangerous enthusiasm or Ms. Blackwell’s mild-mannered insanity or Ms. Celik’s infectious disdain.
I saw “Gone Missing” at the long-gone Belt Theater in 2003 and then again a few years later at the Barrow Street Theater. Listening on Wednesday night, I was thrilled to discover that I remembered every single song, though I hadn’t heard them in more than a decade.
This is a thing about Friedman’s compositions. In the moment, they can seem disposable pastiche. But their lightness is indelible. There’s surprise in the way that the recognizable signatures play against the brainy, wrong-footing rhymes.
That said, the songs don’t sound the same. We’re all 15 years older (those of us who got to grow older, anyway), and the points of impact have shifted. Hearing them, I felt a happy-sad nostalgia, not only for the composer himself but also for the theater scene that birthed him — those theaters in the East Village and the Lower East Side and those post-show bars, many of them now gone.
At the Encores performance, I caught some jokes that had whizzed past me before. From the Gershwin-ish “The Only Thing Missing”: “Think what my nephew Chris/ Just lost at his bris.” Because yes, ha ha ha, foreskin. But also, who names a Jewish kid Chris? And don’t tell me Friedman needed the name for the rhyme, because he could rhyme anything. I give you “Etch A Sketch,” a song about memory loss, which pairs “tabula rasa” and “Kinshasa.”
I heard something else in that song, a rhymed chorus that didn’t really rhyme: “I’m an Etch a Sketch (But now I’m all shook up)/ I’m a piece of wax (But now the imprint’s lost.”) That slant rhyme makes the song deliberately unfinished. It’s up to us listeners to make it whole.
There was audible sobbing during “Etch A Sketch” and more during the final song “Stars,” which has a verse so apt it’s pretty much unbearable: “So when I leave you, you’ll know, I’m just a shadow, an echo/ You never possessed me/ Never possessed me.” That song ends in a half cadence, forever unresolved.
Here’s another thing I hadn’t clocked in past performances: “Gone Missing,” though delightful, is a little thin. It seems to have been written by young people who are curious about loss rather than by older people — or different younger people — who are actually living it. So it’s Friedman’s too-short life — all the things he didn’t do and all the scores he didn’t write — that fleshes out “Gone Missing,” deepens it and gives it context.
And that’s a terrible bargain. But it’s what we’re left with. You just got to laugh.
Through Thursday at New York City Center Mainstage, Manhattan; 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.