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The second act of Melissa James Gibson’s [sic] opens with Babette (Susan Lynskey) discussing her novel with her agent. “It’s about 20th century screams, ” she says. “The history of the world deconstructed through the history of the scream. ”
That, in a nutshell, is also what Gibson’s work is about. The playwright tackles modern urban alienation with an inventive script that deconstructs the inability of language to communicate, driving us farther apart instead of bringing us closer together. In the world of [sic], characters talk in unison, talk at each other, talk alone making hand puppets in the dark. What they have a difficult time doing is listening.
Gibson has penned a uniquely theatrical piece, and [sic] is as much about theater as an art form as it is a comment on the betrayal of language. Gibson’s patron saint wouldn’t be a playwright, but rather the novelist Gertrude Stein, who used repeated and misplaced words to comment on the obtuseness of language.
The story concerns three neighbors who, we are to assume, live on the same floor of an apartment building. Theo (Michael Glenn), a classically trained composer who’s been commissioned to write music for a children’s amusement ride, has the hots for Babette, who doesn’t return the affection. His gay neighbor Frank (Ian LeValley) aspires to a profession dependent on speaking — an auctioneer. In one of the play’s most poignant moments, all three sit alone in their respective apartments and utter at the same time, “I want someone to open the door and be excited to see me. ” The fact that they say it alone — and cannot to each other — underscores Gibson theme on the limits of language.
Director Kimberly Ackerly and designer Thomas F. Donahue create a setting in which the audience is situated between the three apartment rooms, making it almost impossible to watch the entire play without turning in one direction or another. It’s a compelling device, giving the production an interactive feel, as well as implicating the audience as much as the characters in Gibson’s modern dilemma.
Ackerly also faces the daunting task of bringing to life a play where the content of the piece is entirely dependent on its form. She wisely sees herself as a symphony conductor, carefully choreographing the sounds of play as much as the movement. Her skillful ear has a precision that captures the silences and sounds perfectly.
Lynskey brings Babette’s independence into focus without sacrificing her vulnerabilities. Michael Glenn’s Theo is appropriately conflicted, both in his professional and personal lives (he’s recently single). Glenn doesn’t pity Theo, but instead fights for his integrity, giving the play much of its soul. Ian LeValley captures the complexity of Frank, and resists giving in to some of the character’s boorish tendencies.
At times Gibson’s script is inspired as it captures these humans adrift in a sea of language, but sadly, the playwright becomes too fascinated with technique. Her point is intellectual, not emotional. And when emotions become secondary in the theater, you can’t help but leave empty handed.