NEW YORK — If you've ever lost something — say, a cell phone or a favorite ring — and never gave it a second thought, congrats.

But if it really bums you out — still stings, even years later — an edgy off-Broadway theater group feels your pain.

The Civilians offer a thoughtful and sometimes looney show about forgotten wallets, missing childhood sock puppets, the lost island of Atlantis, squandered inheritance and even an absent Gucci pump, size 6.

"I think it challenges people to re-evaluate their relationship to their attachments," says Stephen Plunkett, one of the show's six performers.

With a mix of monologues, dialogues and songs, the actors in "Gone Missing" read missing dog posters, re-create radio interviews and portray a handful of regular folks talking about their missing stuff.

There's a story about a wife's diamond ring stupidly lost down the shower drain and a woman's lament about her still-prized Agnes B scarf which, she fears, is now likely balled up in the back of some dude's SUV.

At various points in the show the actors — each wearing identical gray suits — burst into original songs by Michael Friedman, turning the show into a kind of docu-cabaret.

"I think the upshot of the show is that you lose everything. That's just a reality. And that's not necessarily an answer," Plunkett says. "It just sort of tosses it up to you to be like, 'How do you feel about that?"'

The quirky approach can produce something else lost — audience members. The company recalls one very drunk woman getting up and leaving during a recent performance at the Barrow Street Theatre. "The music is great, but I don't know what they're talking about," she loudly announced as she stumbled up the aisle, slurring her words.

"You either go with it or you don't," says Robbie Collier Sublett, another performer. "You can't twist somebody's arm about it, and sometimes they stop going with it three-fourths of the way through."

The play, born in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has been staged in Tennessee, New England, California, London, Kentucky and Colorado. This is its second time in New York

"The running gag is it's the show that won't die. It's been around for a long time," says Sublett.

"It's our 'Fantasticks,"' jokes actress Colleen Werthmann.

The Civilians, who take their name from an old vaudeville term for people not in show biz, is the brainchild of artistic director Steven Cosson. A 38-year-old graduate of the University of California at San Diego, Cosson asks his 28-actor company to conduct interviews themselves and capture their subjects on stage.

"The first thing that hooked me on talking to real people as a way of making theater was just wanting to speak to people in the first place. Making theater was just a secondary bonus," Cosson says.

His philosophy — based on techniques formulated by Les Waters at London's Joint Stock Theater Group — encourages portraits of people saying extraordinary and ordinary things.

"It's like an intuitive impression," says Plunkett. "It's hard to articulate, but you just sort of listen to someone and give yourself to them. It does something to the inside of you."

Werthmann, Damian Baldet and Jennifer R. Morris were in the play's debut in 2002, which means they did the original interviews. They estimate audiences are seeing only about 30 percent of the material culled. Actors new to the show have either studied the original performers on DVD or gone back to the subjects in person to learn their inflections and mannerisms firsthand.

"It's like a true oral tradition," Werthmann says.

During interviews, the actors use tools that therapists employ: Ask open-ended questions, never interrupt, stay neutral and plumb for accidental revelations.

"Anybody to be a member of this company has not only to be a capable actor in the traditional sense but also a gifted character actor," Sublett says.

"An empath, in a certain way," Werthmann says.

Sometimes, the actors don't know they've stumbled onto something sublime until they present it to the group. That's what happened to Baldet, who interviewed a hotel security guard.

The guard told a story about losing his Palm Pilot in New York and later getting it back — a ho-hum story until the day is revealed: Sept. 11, 2001.

"I think people are interesting to other people, even when what they're saying is not that interesting," Baldet says. "There's no great plot point in his story. It's just a little nugget of random humanity."

The Civilians, who previously dealt with the subject of truth in their show "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," are already hard at work tackling their next topic: evangelism. It promises to be juicy. Members of the company went to Colorado Springs, Colo., just as the Rev. Ted Haggard was ensnared in scandal last year. He was forced to resign his post at New Life Church when a former male prostitute alleged having a three-year cash-for-sex relationship with him.

The Civilians just happened to find themselves in the maw of a still-unraveling storm. They spoke to supporters and critics, atheists and believers.

"I'm always saying with our projects, 'I want to figure out how the personal, how the individual experience, fits into a bigger context,"' Cosson says. "How does it fit into larger political questions or social questions or historical or economic forces that we don't normally perceive in our day-to-day lives?"'

The show that emerged — "The Beautiful City" — is still being edited, but Cosson says it doesn't come to a neat conclusion — just as "Gone Missing" doesn't offer an answer to loss.

"If a play gives an answer, it's a bad play, and it's probably a bad answer," Cosson says. "I want to stir up people's reactions in order to get them to think more deeply."

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