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Review: ‘In a Word’ Grapples With Loss and Language


Laura Ramadei and José Joaquin Pérez, foreground, and Justin Mark, background, in “In a Word.”

Hunter Canning

Fiona has lost her son. Two years ago, Tristan, a second-grader, disappeared from her car during a stop at a gas station. The case has gone Kelvin-scale cold, with hope yielding to despair and terrible puns. Lauren Yee’s “In a Word,” produced by Lesser America at the Cherry Lane Theater, is a sad and breathless and often pretty funny play about the ways in which loss mangles our world and garbles our speech.

Ms. Yee’s subject matter might put people off — people like me. (If I think about lost-child scenarios at all, it’s usually at 3 a.m., just to give my sympathetic nervous system a workout.) But she and the director Tyne Rafaeli tilt the play toward surrealism, keeping horror at bay with quick-fire dialogue and bad jokes. Q.: “What’s brown and sticky?” A.: “A stick.”

Though most of the play takes place in a suburban living room, rangier flashbacks begin almost immediately. The first finds Fiona (Laura Ramadei) fondling melons at the grocery store when she sees a man (Justin Mark) who might be the kidnapper. The clue? His cheerful remark, “Think I had your kid.”

“In class?” Fiona asks.

“In captivity,” the man says.

Fiona, it turns out, tends to see kidnappers everywhere. As her husband, Guy (José Joaquin Pérez), chides her, “You know you only get one.”

“In a Word,” which recently won the Francesca Primus Prize for an outstanding play by an emerging female playwright, twists ordinary conversations and situations into material just absurd enough to capture Fiona’s butterfingers grip on reality. The search for Tristan has damaged her sense of self, maimed her marriage and distorted past and present, transforming a fraught relationship with her difficult son into a more media-friendly narrative.

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