The question of style vs. substance arises early in any consideration of “Suitcase,” Melissa James Gibson’s first play since her prize-winning 2001 play “[sic].” That Gibson has already established and refined a unique literary style is beyond question. “Suitcase,” like that prior play, is peopled by hyper-articulate characters who divert themselves from unpleasant ruminations on stalled careers or unsatisfactory relationships by obsessively parsing their own thought and speech patterns. Instead of lives, they have syntax.
It is full of strange, often hilarious exchanges, recited in the strictest deadpan tones, about the relative merits of the word “albeit” vs. “notwithstanding,” or the proper use of “Aristotelian.” But this inarguably talented young writer is in danger of becoming infatuated with her own voice. Funny as it often is, “Suitcase” is also exasperating. It feels suffocated by its aesthetic — there’s no room for theme, plot or characters to breathe amid Gibson’s elaborate games of wordplay.
The play’s characters are, like those in “[sic],” highly educated young New Yorkers with too much time on their hands. Sallie (Christina Kirk) and Jen (Colleen Werthmann) are slowly laboring to finish dissertations that have ceased to interest them.
When not analyzing the behavior of their advisers or repudiating the attentions of their similarly ineffectual boyfriends, they chat aimlessly on the phone, conducting long conversations about nothing much. In the play’s farcical opening scene, Jen divides her attention between Sallie’s idle musings on all the things she averts her eyes from and an apparent marriage proposal from her boyfriend Karl (Jeremy Shamos), delivered via intercom from outside her apartment.
The question doesn’t get an answer: Jen focuses on the odd sound of the word “propose,” not the fact. The women’s willful emotional isolation is signified in Louisa Thompson’s stylized set design. Sallie and Jen spend the play rooted to cluttered desks raised several feet off the ground, communicating only by telephone or intercom.
In their spare time they pursue separate but similar obsessions. Sallie peers into an apartment in the building next door where someone is screening home movies depicting happy suburban families, while Jen listens endlessly to tape recordings she’d made every Christmas as a child. Beneath the surface of their articulate ramblings runs an unarticulated yearning for the innocence of their youth — or nostalgia for an innocent childhood they never had.
Eavesdropping on the characters’ idle chatter is certainly diverting, particularly for audiences with an affection for arcane grammar and linguistic niceties: I’d be willing to bet that “Suitcase” holds the theatrical record for the recurrence of the word “comma” in spoken dialogue.
There are more universally appealing morsels of wit, too, as when Sallie recalls finding a housesitter on “that slippery slope, a friend of a friend,” and Jen replies soberly, “Friends of friends are never friends you’d want for yourself.” Pursuing the thought, Sallie adds, “Friends of friends should befriend one another and enjoy one massive tenuous relationship. It would be easier for the rest of us.” Later, commenting on Jen’s adviser’s affair with a student, Sallie dryly notes, “Have you ever noticed how people who run off don’t get any farther than right in front of you face.”
But as fresh as Gibson’s dialogue is, its distinctiveness is also somewhat limiting. Her characters could almost be interchangeable; they all speak with the same expansive vocabulary in the same carefully self-conscious manner. (Karl, on the subject of a sigh: “Semiverbal semiphysical sometimes signaling deflation sometimes signaling deflation’s antithesis … strange antithetical beasts sighs are.”)
Under the meticulous direction of Daniel Aukin, who also helmed “[sic],” the actors bring subtle nuances to their roles — Kirk, a veteran of Gibson’s previous play, is most assured at making the elaborately layered dialogue sound natural, while Werthmann underscores the eccentricity — but they still feel like slightly varied tones of a single voice. And some of the play’s more adventurous passages — the non-sequitur-strewn musical refrains that open and close the evening, a long sequence in which the only dialogue consists of the characters repeating each other’s names with differing shades of meaning — feel either too academic or too precious.
Most disappointing is the discovery that Gibson’s dramatic aims don’t go much beyond sketching in the general anomie that beshrouds her characters. Newcomers to Gibson’s work will certainly be disarmed and charmed by the elaborate eccentricity of her dialogue, but fans may be disappointed that she hasn’t used her voice to articulate something new here.
Clever dialogue does not in itself constitute a play. Indeed, unattached to an engaging story or substantive characters, it can be oddly enervating. By its conclusion, “Suitcase” threatens to induce the same state of dazed distraction that plagues its characters.