From looky-loo to Nancy Drew

BY SCOTT STIFFLER   |  Back in the day, before a quick Google search did the all the heavy lifting, you had to be an extremely motivated sleuth to piece together a complete stranger’s dossier. Brick and mortar research methods like a trip to the library, poring over the city’s daily papers and informed gossip just might do the job — but even then, your enormous investment of time usually dredged up just as many questions as answers.

Projecting her own problems: “The Mystery of Pearl Street” really picks up steam, when The Writer’s navel-gazing turns inward.  (c) 2014 JIM R MOORE
Projecting her own problems: “The Mystery of Pearl Street” really picks up steam, when The Woman’s navel-gazing turns inward. (c) 2014 JIM R MOORE

So when a seemingly happy couple vanishes from their immaculate loft with no signs of struggle — and quick escape essentials like passports left behind — it eats away at a person whose bread and butter involves peering into the domestic life of other people.

It’s 1997, and intense navel-gazer Toni Schlesinger — a Village Voice writer who profiles the layout, design and relative affordability of NYC apartments — makes a bid to cover the disappearance of Michael Sullivan and Camden Sylvia from their low-rent FiDi loft. Her editor’s gruff, dismissive response: “I have better people to work on it. Go back to your ‘Shelter’ column.”

He might as well have told her she had his blessing, unlimited resources and all the time in the world to solve “The Mystery of Pearl Street.” Maybe he did. Maybe she just imagined his firm opposition so she’d have a righteous springboard from which to dive into the murky waters of a missing persons case. And why not? It’s a perfect fit for her obsessive need to form a single, satisfactory picture from a million scattered puzzle pieces.

Flash forward to the present. That nice couple has yet to be found, and Schlesinger still hasn’t abandoned the quest for closure. We find her (or more accurately, an enigmatic doppelganger known only as “The Writer”) nursing a scotch and locked in gumshoe detective mode, having a one-sided conversation with “The Man.” This happens at twilight, mere blocks from the Pearl Street (crime?) scene, at a jazzy cocktail room drenched in dreamy blue light. It’s the perfect setting for spies, murderers and others who do their best work in the shadows.

Laying out the tangled web of possibilities (augmented by projected images of tabloid headlines, mystery movies and investigative ephemera), The Writer’s true crime tangent keeps us guessing: Was it a suicide pact? Amnesia? Maybe they joined a cult, or were drowned during a gang attack…or maybe the landlord (whose backstory is plenty suspicious) offed them “just because they were only paying $306, one-tenth the 1997 market rate, for a 1,200-square foot loft and pestering him for more heat all the time.”

With almost two decades worth of time to mull things over and no real answers to show for her effort, The Writer’s connect-the-dots curiosity has nowhere to go but inward.

“The vanishing headline is the marmalade on everyone’s toast.”    (c) 2014 JIM R MOORE
“The vanishing headline is the marmalade on everyone’s toast.” (c) 2014 JIM R MOORE

“Why did the Pearl Street mystery have such a grip?” she wonders aloud. “Was the street a replacement for my mother who said she never wanted a child?” Maybe it’s more about her own existential desire to disappear, or reconcile the collateral damage of love and loss (her mother’s name was Pearl, by the way). Like the fate of Sullivan and Sylvia, you’ll probably never know — but long after this play closes, you might find yourself up at night, providing your own end to the mystery.


Written & Designed by Toni Schlesinger
Through Feb. 22
Fri. & Sat. at 7:30pm
At Dixon Place
161A Chrystie St.  Btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.
Tickets: $16 in advance
At the door: $20 ($12 for students/seniors)
Reservations: 212-219-0736
Visit dixonplace.org
For info on the show: tonischlesinger.com
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On Facebook: facebook.com/dixonplace