A wryly funny, deft, and poignant depiction of our atomized modern life, Susan Soon He Stanton’s Today Is My Birthday paints, with elegant economy, a social world where we’re perpetually accessible to one another through the wonders of technology, yet somehow also utterly isolated. It does this through a structural conceit that could easily feel like a gimmick–but never does: the central character, Emily (Jennifer Ikeda), has only one face-to-face conversation in the entire play; 99 percent of the scenes (and she’s in every one) occur over the phone, or over an intercom, or via the radio. And, sure, there are times when Stanton does have to do a little maneuvering to keep her characters out of the same room (depicting a phone conversation after a first date rather than the date itself; having even two characters who share an apartment somehow never seem to be there at the same time)–but even then, it feels like building a metaphor out to its spatial and thematic limits, rather than a playwriting exercise. The play slowly reveals that despite the web of connections in Emily’s life–her family and high-school friends in Hawaii, where she grew up and has just returned after a devastating breakup in New York; her best friend in New York; some tentative stabs at romance in Hawaii–and despite her (sometimes highly ineffectual) efforts to re-root herself in her hometown, she’s possibly more alone than she’s ever been.
There’s nothing maudlin or sentimental here, though; in fact, one of the joys of the piece is that it works almost as an investigation into Emily, slowly uncovering the unreliable narrator in a woman who seems so mired in bad luck and bad timing that you deflate right along with her every time a glimmer of potential triumph collapses back into another failure. (In one hilariously mortifying misunderstanding, she mistakes her former boss’s romantic interest for a continued job offer, which ends about as well for both parties as you might expect.) But Emily, who’s returned home in her late twenties after a devastating breakup, can’t find work as a journalist (or any other kind of writer), and can’t quite find a way to fit back in with her old friends who made the decision to stay in Hawaii in the first place, is far from a victim. She’s made, we grow to realize, some pretty catastrophic mistakes of her own, has continually run away from her own failures, and she’s going to have to grapple with them before she can rebuild her life. (My only–tiny–quibble is what seems to be a fairly literal cause-and-effect relationship between her finally opening up about her past and her new resolve to fix her present life, but the final scene, set in the studio of Hawaii Public Radio, is so delightful that it’s hard to be bothered.)
All the relationships are textured and rich, even for minor characters drawn with just a few quick brushstrokes by Stanton, director Kip Fagan, and a gifted ensemble of actors–even the robotic voicemail recording of a million “Please leave a message after the tone”s becomes an engaging character (played, hilariously, by Nadine Malouf, who also plays Emily’s best friend in New York, a shock-jock radio DJ, a restaurant hostess, and a call-in faux spiritual guru–all the parts other than Emily are double/triple/quadruple cast). The play is delightfully light on exposition, and Fagan’s directing adds a layer of buoyancy in tone, which lets the bonds of affection, frustration, jealousy, among and between characters shine. Little bits of history emerge through present relationships: We can gauge the differences in high-school status among Emily and her two old friends, Kurt (Ugo Chukwu), the artistic director of a regional theater, married to a high-powered doctor, and Landon (Jonathan Brooks), a designer who was bullied over his sexuality in junior high. Emily’s parents (Emily Kuroda and Ron Domingo) are in the middle of getting divorced; without ever seeing scenes from their functioning marriage, we can see exactly how they got where they are, where they’re still bonded and where they just couldn’t take another minute in each other’s company.
The various pleasures of the characters sometimes threaten to distract from Emily’s journey–from Abraham Chang’s (Domingo) long-suffering, almost aggressive meekness, to the warped dynamics in the marriage of Halima (Malouf), Emily’s best friend in New York, to the excited nerdiness of Franklin (Chukwu), a landscape architect Emily briefly dates, to two radio DJs (Brooks and Malouf) who are pitch-perfect re-creations of the worst, loudest, crassest morning shows on the radio, but integral all the same–but Stanton and Fagan always rein the chaos in when they need to.
Given that the play is so built upon the various technologies of communication rather than face-to-face conversation, it’s no surprise that the sound design is a major element; the designer, Palmer Hefferan, also serves as sort of a performer, mixing the show as a live Foley artist from a booth in one corner of the space. That booth also works as sort of a microcosm of Dane Laffrey’s set, which lines the entire room with acoustical egg-crate foam and uses booths fronted by one-way mirrors to break locations in the action, so the whole space becomes both a sound studio and a generic domestic interior.
Page 73’s mission is to develop and produce the work of early-career playwrights, who have yet to receive an off-Broadway-scale production in New York, and they have an excellent track record of identifying young talent and launching its writers with first-rate productions. In 2017, it shouldn’t be refreshing or noteworthy that their roster of excellent young writers, not to mention their cast, reflects the breadth and diversity of American voices and perspectives. But, since that’s still rarer than it should be, I will note only that Susan Soon He Stanton joins a long line of exciting writers produced by Page 73, and I’m excited to see what both she and the company will do next.
Today is My Birthday runs to December 23. More production info can be found here.