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Theatre in Review: Today Is My Birthday (Page 73 Productions)

Jennifer Ikeda, Ugo Chukwu. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Susan Soon He Stanton's style is so breezily amusing that it might be some time before you notice that her play is a virtual glossary of eek-I'm-turning-thirty clich├ęs: Almost every scene in Today Is My Birthday takes place via telephone or text, an approach that allows for plenty of amusement having to do with crossed wires, cut-off conversations, irritating hold music, and machine messages designed to thwart actual communication. In one especially mordant passage, Emily, the heroine, leaves one masochistic message after another on her ex-boyfriend's voice mail; when the time-is-up beep is sounded, a robotic voice allows her to review her words, choosing whether to save or delete them -- a function that allows her multiple takes and a first-class wallow in self-pity. In the greatest humiliation that can befall a singleton, Emily's ex-boyfriend accidentally butt-dials her, giving her total auditory access to a date with his current girlfriend.

Some of the play's funniest passages center on a phony radio dating game presided over by a pair of insanely uninhibited DJs armed with a battery of sound effects at their fingertips. Kip Fagan's production has the same access: Palmer Hefferan, the production's sound designer and also its Foley artist, works in a booth at the corner of the stage to provide a nonstop parade of sounds. When Emily picks up a newspaper clipping her mother sent her, we hear the rip of an envelope and the rattle of the paper. When a character sharpens a pencil, that distinctive sound is heard. Not for nothing is Dane Laffrey's unit set covered with acoustic treatments; it's a kind of recording studio where sounds are manufactured.

A fast-moving series of encounters with a talkative cast of characters expert in the art of ego-deflation, Today is My Birthday is the theatrical equivalent of light comic fiction. (I hate the term "chick-lit.") Emily has come running back to Hawaii, her childhood home, with a master's degree in journalism from Columbia and not much else to show for it. Trying -- but not too hard -- to find serious work as a writer, she has to contend with her interfering mother, who sends her magazine clippings informing her that "twentysomethings are damaging future career and relationships by treating the decade as 'downtime' before real life begins." She is horrified to hear that her parents are splitting up and that her father, a music archivist, is dating a colleague. (Emily even ends up living with him at one point, discovering his complete inability to keep house.) She accepts tough-love pep talks from her best male friend, Landon, a gay graphic designer, and frets about her female best friend (back in New York), Halima, who, having discovered that her husband is reading her diary, has begun inserting fictional entries designed to upset him. Hired as an actress for a radio dating show, she becomes obsessed with a male actor (whom she has never met), putting herself through all sorts of contortions to hunt him down.

None of this is unpleasant, and some of it is honestly amusing, but Stanton juggles so many subplots that the script boils down to a series of comic premises sorely in need of development. It doesn't help that Emily, as presented, is so prone to bad decision-making that one has to seriously wonder if she is worth one's time. Her fixation with her radio mystery man verges on the pathetic -- and her reaction when the guy's identity is revealed isn't much better. Another encounter scene with an ex -- now married and a dad in San Francisco - is one exercise in self-abasement too many, and may leave you cringing. Emily complains endlessly about her inability to find work -- but when she does land a gig, it's from a family friend who could have helped her all along -- except that if she had, there wouldn't be a play. Her reasons for fleeing New York involve bad judgment on so many levels that one wonders if Stanton isn't daring us to dislike her heroine. So hapless is Emily that, were she not being played by the talented and personable Jennifer Ikeda, one might give up on her altogether.

These problems are alleviated in part by the charming leading lady and a supporting cast skilled at delivering characterizations with the ease of quick-sketch artists. Jonathan Brooks is acid, yet likable, as Landon (especially in a priceless bit about a liaison with a married man who shows up complete with Baby Bjorn) and as the madman DJ Loki, presiding over his radio show with manic glee. Ugo Chukwu is adept as various Mr. Wrongs and the head of the local theatre, and Ron Domingo is touching, both as Emily's clueless father and as a 104-year-old ukulele player who Emily hopes will help her jump-start her career. Emily Kuroda does her best with a standard crazy-mother role, and is a warm presence as a newspaper editor who offers her mentoring services. Best of all is Nadine Malouf, inflamed with vengeance as Halima, sweetly passive-aggressive as a restaurant hostess who doesn't like to be crossed, and as any number of radio and telephone voices.

In addition to the set and sound designs, Jessica Pabst's costumes tell us plenty about the characters -- special mention goes to the getups worn by DJ Loki and his sidekick, Solange, and to Landon's T-shirt, covered with multiple images of Britney Spears.

This combination of elements results in a play that amuses and irritates in equal measure. It's typical of Today Is My Birthday that the happy ending finds Emily restarting her writing career in exactly the way that she has insisted all along is impossible. It's a too-easy wrap-up for a play that, for all its laughs and occasional insights, often settles for the superficial. We're supposed to see that Emily is growing up at last; for me, it didn't come a moment too soon. -- David Barbour

(15 December 2017)

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