Dog and Pony’s ‘Dead Letter Office': Sharing sad secrets, surreally



John Fenner Mays and Kristen Magee face their dark pasts through each other.

Have you ever visited PostSecret.com? It’s a place where people anonymously scribe and send their most intimate secrets and desires — some funny, a few naughty, but most of them sad — to this website for www publishing. It’s a way to release your skeletons from your closet without really being accountable for it. And for the more voyeuristic readers of the site, it’s strangely empowering to read these secrets. Perhaps it might give you the courage to face your own?

It’s an interesting site: at first it seems a straightforward stage for our “notice me” generation of over-sharers, but then, after visiting a while, it begins to strike a deeper, more somber chord: these are mostly sad, lost people.

I feel the same way about Dog & Pony’s Dead Letter Office — a world-premiere play by Philip Dawkins. It’s a seemingly simple ensemble drama about a quartet of sad, lost people working in the basement of a Minnesotan post office — but then it suddenly transforms into a surreal piece about facing past wrongs, exposing secrets and overcoming them.

Christian (John Fenner Mays) is the long-time postal worker who runs the “dead letter office” — a cold and musty basement that’s the last chance for lost (dead) letters — letters that have been returned to sender but with no return address, or letters that simply have no address. Through a little detective work (i.e., opening the envelope and reading its contents), Christian either determines the intended recipient or it’s trashed.

Essentially, the dead letter office is similar to the spirit of PostSecret: it’s a wasteland of misrouted hopes and dreams.

Christian finds comfort in his routine and doesn’t like interruption. So, of course, we have Agatha (Susan Price), the persistant-yet-well-meaning mail carrier who visits Christian every day — much to his chagrin — to keep the play going. (Otherwise we’d be watching a sad man open letters for two hours.) Agatha’s the type of woman who’s been planning an office Christmas party since August and asks you every day if you’ll be there — so you’ll say you’ll go, without any intention of doing so, just to shut her up. However, you feel bad for that, because you know this party is the only thing Agatha has going for her. We all know this woman.

So: things look unchanging in the dead letter office — an idea that’s snoozily played out for the first 20 minutes of the slow first act.

And then, out of the blue, comes Je’ T Aime (Kristen Magee), a sultry, no-nonsense younger woman who’s been hired to work with Christian in the dead letter office. You already suspect she’s landed the job because she’s slept with the boss, played by the perfectly sleazy Joshua Volkers. But there’s more to the story, naturally.

The routine is shaken up — and the action (finally) gets going. And then, at the conclusion of act one, things take a jarringly surreal turn, which places the remaining action of act two in an entirely different frame of mind. I won’t reveal what happens, but it’s unexpected and I’m not sure if it completely works, or what the overall tone of the play wants to be. But it’s certainly provocative, making you sit forward for the final tense moments.

Strong performances and a unique concept make Dog & Pony’s latest effort well worth seeing, even if the result is a bit confounding.

“Dead Letter Office” plays through July 18 at the DCA Storefront Theatre. More info here >

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