"Africa?" asks Bryan (Peter O'Connor), doing his best to convince his boyfriend Todd (Charles Socarides) to sleep with him. "I don't want to talk about something I don't know anything about, that's how people end up making up shit." Bryan may be poor compared to the rich, well-intentioned Todd, but at least he's honest, which is something that--for most of Letters to the End of the World--writer/director Anton Dudley is not. Though the language is fine, as one might expect from the letter-writing correspondence between Todd and his African-reporting idol Agnatha (Shannon Burkett), the play itself rarely reaches beyond the dimly descriptive, especially for the sections mired in America. Then again, what did we really expect? Agnatha writes for Vogue, and Dudley is making up--or at least falsely appropriating--shit.
Lost as the overall story may be, Dudley at least deserves credit for fleshing out his African characters, though much of that is due to actors Francesca Choy-Kee and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson. (Look at the way Henderson nails even his few lines doubling as a conscience-provoking homeless man.) Ms. Mwando starts out as a sour matriarch, clucking at the juvenile joys of Emmanuel. But it's as much a delight to see the joy peek through Choy-Kee's lips as it is a sorrow to see illness threaten to eclipse those sparks. And Henderson's buoyant energy paves the way for the pending gravity, a performance that fits perfectly with Dudley's own intent (after all, this Nike-loving man has the most serious job of all: coffin-maker). It's a shame that Burkett's portrayal of Agnatha comes across as that of a stubborn, stupid interloper (in other words, an American). It makes her too similar to Socarides's Todd, and neither one ever seems affected by the world around them, even when they've literally got the blood of babies on their hands.
Sadly, Dudley's more concerned with America than Africa, and--as if realizing that he needs to find a way to connect the two--settles on the cheapest solution he can find: AIDS. He also picks the most contrived means of doing so; while Todd is off in Africa, Bryan wallows in a drunken stupor back in America. He also starts sleeping with Tess (Burkett), absurd not just because he is gay, but because Tess happens to be Agnatha's crazy twin sister. (No, really.) If this is the way for him to show Todd his love, then romance is officially dead. So is the potential for poetry in the play: the text is sapped, strangled, and then beaten (like a dead horse), especially as scenes start to repeat themselves. (And repeat they must: since Dudley has little to say, but takes two acts to do so.)
The admirable low-budget aesthetic of At Hand Theatre Company runs into trouble, too: Eli Kaplan-Wildmann's "set" consists of a sliding bench and a crude map drawn on the wall, making it hard for the audience to connect with the things being described. (Were they described more spiritedly, as in I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given To Me By a Young Lady from Rwanda, that would be fine; here, though, they need a striking visual, like that of Roundabout's production of The Overwhelming.) It's a bold choice to stage a show in the round within the small Studio Theater at Theater Row: had there been any action on stage, it would indict us as passive observers. However, for a play about such passive observers, we wind up watching the audience as much as the actors.
At what is supposed to be the "climax" of Letters to the End of the World, Agnatha tells Todd that she is leaving--giving up on the actual people of the clinic--to pursue a story. "I do that and the better version of me--the richer, more educated, more capable version of me--will come here and take my place." That seems to be what Dudley is doing as a playwright, too: he's settling for what he's done and hastily putting it out there, for better or worse, hoping that someone will see this and be inspired enough to do better. Well, at least we can still hope.