Christina Kirk and Thomas Jay Ryan in Suitcase(Photo © David Gochfeld)
Christina Kirk and Thomas Jay Ryan in Suitcase
(Photo © David Gochfeld)
Melissa James Gibson is one of the most original and entertaining new playwrights to emerge in recent years. Her latest work, Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance, is hilarious, offbeat, and oddly moving. Like her last play, the critically acclaimed and equally quirky [sic], it features a terrific ensemble cast and is superbly directed by Soho Rep artistic director Daniel Aukin.

Suitcase is a play about avoidance: Jen (Colleen Werthmann) and Sallie (Christina Kirk) are graduate students purportedly working on their dissertations, but very little writing actually gets done. Jen's subject is garbage -- or, as another character describes her thesis, "[she] believes what we discard is of much greater interest than what we keep." Sallie, meanwhile, is writing about alternative forms of storytelling that do not conform to the standard beginning-middle-end construct. The title of her opus: "Narrative Interruptus."

The two women are best friends and live in the same building, yet they seem to communicate with each other primarily by phone. They call each other up at all hours of the day or night and, without preamble, launch into conversations that include lines like, "Tell me if this sounds pretentious but I'm beginning to see my romantic life as alarmingly Aristotelian." Their phone talk is amplified, allowing the actors to speak in soft, almost dreamlike tones that are at once intimate and alienating.

In addition to avoiding writing and avoiding talking to their academic advisors, Jen and Sallie also avoid their boyfriends, who show up at their building and try to convince the pair to buzz them in. Karl (Jeremy Shamos), Jen's beau, goes into a hiccupping fit when trying to propose and has a policy of not talking about emotions while on the phone. Lyle (Thomas Jay Ryan), Sallie's boyfriend, seems to be the least neurotic of the four characters -- although he too has his quirks, such as a habit of substituting words like "effing" for the profanities that he really wants to use.

Under Aukin's able direction, the ensemble cast revels in the musicality of Gibson's language. There is plenty of overlap in the characters' dialogue, as well as multiple conversations happening simultaneously. The cast handles such challenges with a linguistic deftness that boggles the mind; intentions and emotions are conveyed less through words than through the stresses, pauses, and intonations of the actors. One scene is played out entirely with the four characters saying one another's names in different combinations, yet the action and emotional tenor of the sequence are crystal clear. But the characters themselves do become confused, and their constant miscommunication is another way in which the author plays with language. As Lyle attempts to have a serious talk with Sallie, he tells her that, "in one's life there are only so many significant cusps" -- which Sallie hears as "significant cuffs." She then says, "I was trying to figure out what a Significant Cuff would be. Maybe like on a bloodstained shirt at a crime scene or something."

Colleen Werthman in Suitcase(Photo © David Gochfeld)
Colleen Werthman in Suitcase
(Photo © David Gochfeld)
Louisa Thompson's set design positions Jen and Sallie on elevated platforms. Each sits at a cluttered desk, surrounded by swingarm desk lamps. Behind them, the audience can see the tenements located across the street from their building, finely rendered with miniature fire escapes and windows through which miniature pieces of furniture are visible. Sallie has a habit of using a pair of binoculars to spy on her neighbors as they watch home movies; a flickering light appears in one of the miniature apartments courtesy of lighting designer Matthew Frey, and the film itself is projected onto the back wall of the set thanks to projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy.

Karl and Lyle's apartments are symbolically placed underneath their respective girlfriends' desks, and the two male actors go in and out of a glass door placed up stage center to mark their entering or exiting the womens' apartment building. Occasionally, the two men meet up on the stairs or in the building corridor; these encounters are the most physically active in the production, as the women remain behind their desks for almost the entire play.

Presented as a co-production between Soho Rep and True Love Productions, Suitcase is compellingly theatrical without resorting to a traditional play structure or, on the other hand, coming across as overly abstract. It captures the dissatisfaction of its overeducated characters, who attempt to find meaning through deciphering each others' words and intentions but rarely through the act of human contact.