February 4, 2004

Melissa James Gibson: Lady of the Flies

by John Heilpern


Christina Kirk and Thomas Jay Ryan in Suitcase
(Photo © David Gochfeld

One of the intriguing things about the most talented—and welcome—new playwright, Melissa James Gibson, is that we don’t know anything about her. Well, I don’t. Who is she? We could, of course, Google her. But that would spoil the mystery. She seems, in any case, to enjoy a certain unfashionable anonymity. All we know—and need to know—about her is found in her playful, refreshingly unpredictable comedies about growing up miserable.

Ms. Gibson might be a little old lady in Des Moines, for all we know, or happily married with three bonny kids. The "James" in Melissa James Gibson might suggest a marriage. But on the evidence of her plays, she’s a quirky thirtysomething given to lassitude and spying on her neighbors; a wry post-graduate sunk in despair with a good dictionary; or a lost, romantic nostalgiac obsessed with those drips known as men, the Meaning of Life and the correct use of "albeit."

Albeit Ms. Gibson came from nowhere three seasons ago with her eccentrically titled play [sic], it was clear at first sight that she is a dramatist who surprises and delights us. The witty, unusual breakthrough—brilliantly staged by Daniel Aukin at the tiny Soho Rep—was a wholly original take on urban friendship and the comedy of manners, a contemporary Design for Living expressed in articulate weirdness. Ms. Gibson’s latest play, Suitcase, again directed by Mr. Aukin, is more ambitious and riskier in its neurotic way, and though it wobbles nuttily from time to time, we’re left again with the pleasure of this fine playwright’s company.

Take the full title of the play—the modernist mouthful Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance. The "suitcase" suggests baggage and transition, of course; the "flies"—a note in the script informs us—are Ms. Gibson’s tribute to Jorge Luis Borges’ essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (from his Other Inquisitions: 1937-1952), in which scholarly reference is made to a Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. It is written there that animals are divided into categories, including mermaids, those that have just broken a flower vase, and those that resemble flies from a distance.

The flies scrutinized in Ms. Gibson’s Suitcase are two graduate students who can’t finish their futile dissertations and won’t let their clingy boyfriends into their apartments. Outwardly, we might be in a conventional sitcom with loopy overtones. Sallie and Jen phone each other often and communicate through their intercoms with Lyle and Karl, the pathetic boyfriends abandoned on the stairwell. It’s the first intercom romance I’ve seen. Sometimes all four of them speak at the same time, which is confusing. The static of a silent intercom tells us more about Ms. Gibson’s defensive, needy women living in messy, stubborn isolation.

Their dissertations are "un-going" in an "ongoing" sort of way. Sallie is failing to write hers on a typewriter, incidentally. You remember typewriters? Shakespeare used one. They go clack-clack-clack! They go thud. Typewriters no longer belong; they have no place in the world, like a horse and buggy.

Her frequently shredded dissertation happens to be about alternative means of storytelling. Aha! Ms. Gibson’s calling card is surely the same. After all, she begins and ends Suitcase with a dopey, sweet song from her mismatched couples. "I wonder," goes the mordant lyric, "how we were before we weren’t …. "

Ms. Gibson’s fondness for wordplay, linguistic quibbles, verbal tics and misunderstanding—"yucky" for ‘lucky"—are part of the fun. Then again, a prissy preoccupation with syntax can disguise real feeling as surely as the articulate smartness here substitutes for frayed emotion. Only Ms. Gibson would have a character living in self-described "semi-enlightened limbo" complain to her laboriously predictable boyfriend, "You’re such a causal guy"—and get away with it!

And who else would have the aggrieved boyfriend hit back with: "Your fear of unfortunate phrases is ruining our relationship … !"

Ms. Gibson has a surprising mind, as I say. After all, the lunatic dissertation of her other trapped heroine, Jen, is about garbage found in neighbors’ bins. (She believes that what we discard is far more interesting than what we keep, and on the evidence of her life, she’s right.) Her enslaved, forlorn boyfriend brings her suitcases of the stuff—not that she’s grateful. "I’m complicated," she protests. "You always said you like complicated women."

"Women who are complicated in a FUN way," he replies.

Jen’s prize piece of garbage—evidence of some kind of life out there—is a found tape-recording made by a girl named Lizzie during various bickering family Christmases. Happy Xmas—a suicidal time of the year. We hear Lizzie as a child excitedly opening some gift; then growing up: "Please, somebody get me out of this house"; then as a 37-year-old divorcée. "Um, well it’s been an uneventful couple of decades, I guess. Dad’s mixing up some eggnog in the kitchen right now. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing …. "

Meanwhile, Sallie diverts herself by spying through binoculars on her neighbors across the way, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. They’re showing home movies of a happy, nice and normal child with her dad. "Do you ever wonder," Sallie asks later, "what happens to all those little girls at weddings who slide across the floor in their stocking feet?"

Suitcase is a near farce of graduate angst and desperation, but its heart is all about lost childhood and innocence. It is about the melancholy of growing up and a nostalgia for a younger, happier time, real or imagined—for "how we were before we weren’t."

If that sounds bleak, it is. "If one could only refrain / from one’s refrain," goes Ms. Gibson’s surprising epilogue in maudlin, sweet song. And the closing lyric—"Sometimes small potatoes / taste the best"—isn’t the most romantically uplifting I’ve heard lately. But Ms. Gibson, jumping through hoops as she figures out the unpredictable absurdity of life, is too bright to be content, and her wit and misanthropy delight us just the same.

The ensemble of Suitcase couldn’t be better. Let’s name the excellent Christina Kirk, Colleen Werthmann, Thomas Jay Ryan and Jeremy Shamos. Mr. Aukin and his scenic designer, Louisa Thompson, have once again conjured up a modernist urban landscape that’s desolate and magical, like an art installation with real, live, peculiar people. I don’t know where Melissa James Gibson is going from here, but I’ll be there.