Theater Review

By Linda Winer

January 26, 2004

It begins with an intentionally terrible, oddly poignant, unexpectedly amusing little song. The two youngish women and the two youngish men in Melissa James Gibson's "Suitcase," which opened Jan. 25 at the Soho Rep, take turns delivering dislocated lines of a shaky tune.

Some lines are about feelings, as in "This funny feeling's really not that funny." Some are about the uncertainties of happiness, as in "Is this house of love just bricks without mortar/I should have been a Doctor Without Borders." Quite a few are about the semiotic mysteries of language, as in "Some words sound better in other tongues ... and longing is a seven-letter word."

After 90 minutes of funny feelings, longing and weirdly exhilarating wordplay, the future of these four unsettled urban settlers is hardly less certain than it was at the start. What is clear, however, is that Gibson - whose "sic" had its beguiling premiere at this same theater last year - is a thoroughly original talent, a stylist who appreciates the musical impact of words as much as she can simultaneously love and mock her overly articulate, emotionally conflicted characters.

There are moments, very few moments, when the verbal self-consciousness makes us want to run screaming into the night. Far more often, however, the effect of her internal polyphony has the giddy, exquisite feeling of an extremely high-strung string quartet.

Jen (Colleen Werthmann) and Sallie (Christina Kirk) are stuck in the parallel universe of dead-end dissertations. Each one's home is a perch high atop industrial-looking contraptions. Each sits at a drawing table and is attached, almost without end, to the receiver of old-fashioned blue telephones with curlicue cords. Jen, whose dissertation is about garbage, is being courted by Karl (Jeremy Shamos), a sweet adoring fellow who brings her garbage in a suitcase. Sallie, whose paper is about "alternative means of storytelling," is courted by Lyle (Thomas Jay Ryan), whose feelings are more confused.

The women keep the men out in the cold, literally. Louisa Thompson's ingenious set often has them freezing outside a door, begging on Jen's intercom to be let in. There are tiny pop-up doors on the women's desks that are as impregnable as a castle with the drawbridge drawn over the moat. The poor guys, stranded in the stairwell, agree that it will be "nice" when "our girlfriends' dissertations are finished." When Jen reminds Karl that he always liked "complicated women," he says, yes, "but in a fun way."

These women cannot be fun to love. But they are unpredictably delightful to watch and overhear. Much interaction, such as it is, happens in the collision of conversations on those blue phones and over the intercom. Then, too, Jen is listening to an unknown girl's taped Christmas diaries on an old-fashioned yellow tape recorder from Jen's garbage research. And Sallie, who wears her winter cap with knitted braids in the house, spies on old happy-family home movies being shown in a neighbor's apartment. (Blissfully eclectic realistic downtown costumes are by Maiko Matsushima.) Sallie is hilarious about the problem with house sitters and, with a candor we rarely get to hear in from women in the theater, sadly admits "I want to sleep with a lot of people I'll never sleep with."

As in 'sic,' which was also acutely directed by Soho Rep's Daniel Aukin, Gibson establishes her subtle understanding of a generation both transient and stuck in containers that the city calls home. There is more nostalgia for a happiness that these women may not really want. In a program note about the company, Aukin explains, "We hunt for the play that is only a play, not a television show or a film." Good for us.