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A CurtainUp Review
Suitcase —Or, Those That Resemble Flies From A Distance

By Elyse Sommer
One time when Karl and I first started Ihatethatstupidphrase seeing each other he called me up and said It's Me before he was a me to me. . .prematurely me-ified himself and it pissed me off--- Jen
Wasn't it sort of flattering that he wanted so badly to be a me to you? -- Sallie
Me-ification should be offered not taken Sallie -- Jen
The linguistics besotted playwright switches the focus of this interchange to point these women's commitment phobias by having Sallie talk about "the split verbal whatever" and ask Jen "shouldn't it be pissed off me."
I once wrote an article about unusual places and ways men popped the question. The piece rounded up some pretty novel proposals, but none more amusing than the one in Melissa James Gibson's new play Suitcase or, Those That Resemble Flies From a Distance. Ms. Gibson has not only contrived to have the question popped over a walk-up apartment house intercom but, borrowing from Longfellow's "The Courtship of Miles Standish", has it delivered by proxy.

But a novel marriage proposal isn't all Ms. Gibson delivers. As in her first play sic she once again mines the lives of a group of people whose dreams are being challenged by day to day reality. Brilliant careers stalled by unfinished dissertations and romances that are more like house wine than a bubbly celebratory champagne are mined for their comic potential The dialogue is studded with word play and delivered in a distinctive rhythm which this time around includes several songs.

While the lives of the characters in sic were interlinked by their living on the same floor of one building, the connection between the two women and two men in Suitcase is based on their relationships. The friendship of the women, Jen (Colleen Werthmann) and Sallie (Christina Kirk), dates back long enough for them to have nostalgic memories of a shared cross-country trip.

The two boyfriends, Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and Lyle (Thomas Jay Ryan), their combined names giving rise to considerable allusionary fun, have suffered through and supported long-ranging esoteric and currently stalled dissertations. Yet, at least during the course of the play, both men are frozen out of their respective girlfriends' apartments. This lock-out, which is the crux of what passes as a plot, is played out mostly through a series of phone conversations between the two women and each woman with her boyfriend . The boyfriends, though less evolved characters, are the only ones who have any face to face interaction.

Christina Kirk, who played another academically inclined character in Sic , has switched topics, this time searching out examples of alternative storytelling, but her performance as Sallie is again right on the mark. Colleen Werthmann is her perfect best telephone buddy, the equally anxiety-ridden and compulsive Jen who has been studying the garbage of three randomly selected individuals for five years. As the hapless suitors, Thomas Jay Ryan's more aggressive Lyle is a nice fit with Jeremy Stamos' less assertive Karl. It is the latter's complaint that the suitcases full of garbage with which he's been helpfully supplying Jen have really been "offerings of unwanted love" that gives the play its title.

Les Gutman, who reviewed Sic for CurtainUp, remarked on how Daniel Aukin's creative staging and Louisa Thompson's set energized the play. This is again the case. The stage is a dominated by two elevated cubicles that pass for the work areas of the women's apartments, with miniature front doors perched on the edge of their desks. These claustrophobic spaces are differentiated only by the accouterments of their occupants' dissertations. They are elevated above the lobby and stairwells leading to each front door. The apartments also back onto a s scaled to size view of the apartments outside their windows, artfully lit by Matt Frey throughout. The backdrop of the streetscape also gives Elaine J. McCarthy an opportunity to project the titles for each scene as well as images of the subjects of Jen and Sallie's parallel voyeuristic pursuits -- one if a young girl whose Christmas memories are unspooled from a discarded tape recorder, the other a home movie being shown in one of the apartments Sallie watches through her opera glass.

The evolving angst about aging and never having it all begins with Sallie's reminiscing about hers and Jen's cross-country trip when they were both "hungry to see as much as we could" whereas now as Sally puts it " I find I basically go through My Stupid Life um averting my eyes." The concern with the losses of getting older and less curious is replayed in a song that's part of scene titled "Dissertation Smissertation." Here, as the playwright borrowed from Longfellow for the Karl-via-Lyle proposal, she has Sally sing a lyric that anyone who grew up on A.A. Milne's wonderful When We Were Young poems will recognize. As Milne had a young narrator view the changes from the first to sixth birthday, and winding up with a decision to remain "six forever and ever" Sallie's song reflects on moving from twenty-nine to thirty-thirty-three: "When I was twenty/I got looked at plenty/At twenty-nine/The world was mostly mine. . .At thirty-three/I'm looked at mostly by me."

For all their absorption in their dissertations and apparent disinterest in their appearances (vividly evident in Maiko Matsushima's costumes), these women are at heart romantics. Jen abhors not only the language of every day, predictable coupling but wants love to be more " improbable." -- a view not shared by Karl who amends his earlier liking for "complicated women" with "complicated in a Fun way." Sally's dissatisfaction with Lyle is hilariously dissected in a scene titled "Greek " during which Sallie declares that she finds her romantic life beginning to be "alarmingly Aristotelian." As Jen yearns for more improbability, Sallie complains that Lyle "never does anything inadvertent." This leads to a discussion of Sallie's attraction to her adviser along with the fine points differentiating "super-duper Aristotelian" from "Platonic."

The frequently mentioned disappearance of Lyle's father is something of a non sequitur. When Sallie at one time cuts short Lyle's quandaries about where his father might have gone and why with "Maybe your father wants to take a break from you. . .because lately Lyle talking to you is like eating a hair omelet" both Lyle and Jen's immediate Gibsonian response is "nice image." This hardly clarifies the father business, but then this is a not a linear play and non sequiturs are part and parcel of the architecture used to build up the assorted feelings of ennui and mislaid hopes. Much as I enjoyed both this new play and its predecessor, it did leave me with this question: Where does this young playwright go now? Will she make the most of her very original voice and achieve the depth and breadth of word play experts like Tom Stoppard, or will she keep mining the same territory and style and risk having her linguistic virtuosity trap her into a playwriting mode that tilts so heavily towards style and intellect to let in more emotion engaging characterizations. I suspect Ms. Gibson is already aware of this need for growth and change since, for all the laugh aloud dialogue, she lets Jen and Sallie move forward. Their concluding lyric is a plaintive " if one could only refrain from one's refrain" and their tiny front doors are opened to let in the men, and with them a new "refrain."

At $15 a ticket, it doesn't take a suitcase full of money to see this or any of Soho rep's always interesting productions. The Walker Street venue is the theater goer's equivalent of moving into a trendy but still low rent district.


Written by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by Daniel Aukin.
Cast: Christina Kirk, Thomas Jay Ryan, Jeremy Shamos & Colleen Werthmann
Set Design: Louisa Thompson
Costume Design: Maiko Mattsushima
Lighting Design: Matt Frey
Composer: Michael Friedman
Sound Design: Shane Rettig
Projections: Elaine J. McCarthyRunning time: 90 minutes without intermission
Co-Production of Soho Rep and True Love Productions at Walkerspace, 46 Walker St. (Church/Broadway, 2 blocks south of Canal)

1/22/04 to 2/14/04; opening 1/24/04.
Wed to Sat @ 7:30pm.
Tickets, $15. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/23/04 performance

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