Ah, spring. When a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of sending dead lizards through the mail. Such is one of the many exchanges between the couple in Hate Mail by Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky, now playing at the Independent Theater. And you think your love life has problems. Hate Mail chronicles the bizarre relationship of Preston (Jason Cicci) and Dahlia (Danielle Ferland) through a series of letters, notes, telegrams, Internet chats, and the occasional posted reptile (Interfauna?). A.R. Gurney's Love Letters this ain't. Preston and Dahlia start the play out as strangers, but over time they become adversaries, friends, lovers, and back to enemies—all without delivering a single line of dialogue face to face.
The story starts when uptight Midwesterner Preston writes a letter of complaint, requesting a refund from a souvenir shop he had visited while on vacation. The reply, sent from assistant manager Dahlia, succinctly states that the store gives no refunds. Preston tries again but is met with a similar response. Frustrated, he escalates the argument with threats of litigation.
But as the attacks grow more heated, they also become more personal. Imagine Preston's chagrin when Dahlia reveals herself to be a bohemian photographer, working in the shop to support her art. Before long, the plot gets ridiculously complex. Preston gets medicated and joins a commune, while Dahlia swears off art to become a traveling saleswoman. Over the course of the play, they constantly reinvent themselves, turning their lives upside down again and again. Through all this, inexplicably, they find themselves writing to each other on a regular basis.
Corbett and Obolensky have honed their comic writing over the years on some quite impressive projects. He was a staff writer and performer on the cult-classic TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. She is perhaps most famous for her award-winning play Lobster Alice. Their collaboration here has produced a script that's funny enough but ultimately unremarkable. It would be beside the point to bemoan the plot's contrivances (each character undergoes several personality about-faces; why they maintain their correspondence at times is a bit of a mystery). The big crime here is that while the script provides chuckles throughout, truly big laughs are few and far between.
Director Catherine Zambri has fortunately crafted a fine production, keeping the action taut and lively. How much action is there in a script that consists entirely of correspondence between two people who never share the same stage space at the same time? Surprisingly a lot, thanks to Zambri. Of course, a good portion of credit goes to the almost perfectly cast Cicci and Ferland for accomplishing the superhuman task of engaging an audience in this epistolary format.
Chris Dallos's lighting does wonders to help the audience keep track of time and space, while Maruti Evans's set is simplicity in itself. As you can probably imagine, desks play an important role, but the stunner here is the giant sheet that covers both the back wall and floor with a design of envelopes, stamps, and postcards. Chelsea White's costumes (easily disposable tie for him, bright tops and optional sunglasses for her) suit the characters to a tee, and Andrew Bellware's choice of music features the usual suspects ("Please Mr. Postman," "The Letter").
Ultimately, this production of Hate Mail is stronger than the play itself. No matter how well a talented cast tries to sell a groaner of a joke, it's still a groaner. The script is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, but for a while, the cast and crew might make you forgive that.