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‘The Seven Year Disappear’ Review: Looking for Mom in All the Wrong Places

The problem with writing a play about absence: How to fill the void? When a performance artist known as Miriam (Cynthia Nixon) vanishes in “The Seven Year Disappear,” a two-hander by Jordan Seavey that opened Monday at the Signature Center, we know only that she is a narcissist who steals the air from any room she enters.

“The Whitney is mine,” she exclaims in the opening scene, after her adult son and manager, Naphtali (Taylor Trensch), informs her that the museum has made some sort of offer to Marina Abramovic. After seven years off the map, when Miriam returns, she has the gall to ask Naphtali whether he will help turn his abandonment into her next piece.

Scenes following Miriam’s reappearance, which occurs on the heels of the 2016 election, are intercut with a reverse chronology of Naphtali’s search for her, which is really a quest to find himself — in a change of careers, a series of sexual liaisons and a lot of hard drugs.

“The Seven Year Disappear” has the ostensible trappings of an art-world satire, and this New Group production, directed by Scott Elliott, appears sleekly designed to deliver one. But satire calls for a more distinct point of view, discernible targets, and a greater measure of specificity and insight. The staging here, with an emphasis on style and high-tech mediation, appears keen to make up for their lack.

A mix of live and recorded footage of the actors is displayed on flat-screen TVs suspended above the slick, black set (by Derek McLane); at times, their faces appear in close-up stills (projections by John Narun) that could be digital ads for Jil Sander. Onstage, the actors are dressed in black-canvas coveralls and combat boots (costumes are by Qween Jean), and intermittently speak into standing mics (sound is by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen). The cumulative effect is one of performance-art cosplay, which could be funny if it didn’t seem so earnest.

Humor is intended to come from Seavey’s Oedipal conceit: Though Miriam is nowhere to be found, she’s also everywhere her son looks. Nixon plays the seven other characters Naphtali encounters, including three he has sexual relationships with: his mother’s “ex-lover-slash-manager” (a quasi father figure), a co-worker in Hillary Clinton’s campaign office (Naphtali swaps art for politics) and an Episcopal bishop hosting an orgy.

Nixon, a delicately skilled stage performer, plays each character as a slightly exaggerated persona, like roles an artist might try on to demonstrate that identity is a kind of drag. If there are psychoanalytic underpinnings to this approach, they’re not compellingly explored. The result is two actors operating in uneven registers throughout, with Trensch as the so-called straight man to Nixon’s shuffle of mild caricatures. (The exceptions are mother-son confrontations that Elliott pitches as earplug-worthy shouting matches.)

If Miriam persists as a vacuum at the play’s center (What is her art like? Who is she aside from a bad mother?), so does her son. Equipped with the vocabulary and demeanor of a young gay New Yorker, Naphtali — whose name means “my struggle, my strife” — talks elliptically about politics mostly in service of quips that echo with hindsight about the country’s rightward turn (“Under what circumstances could she possibly lose?” he asks, referring to Clinton). His kinks amount to little more than mild provocations.

“Think about what art really means,” Miriam urges her son, “and why we make it.” It’s a worthwhile command — and a bold one to make in a show that doesn’t manage to summon its own satisfying answers.

The Seven Year Disappear
Through March 31 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; thenewgroup.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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