In ‘Today Is My Birthday,’ Love Is a Butt Dial

Posted December 10, 2017 10:04 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Like sadomasochists, playwrights sometimes seek freedom through peculiar restraints. Beckett’s experiments in deprivation — his monodrama “Not I” stars a pair of lips — explore how much can be removed from the theatrical experience and still leave theater. Other recent one-arm-tied challenges have included epistolary plays, plays performed in darkness and plays spoken in invented languages. Bess Wohl’s marvelous “Small Mouth Sounds” is set at a silent retreat.

The charming dramedy “Today Is My Birthday,” which opened Thursday evening in a Page 73 production, gives this tradition a contemporary twist. As Susan Soon He Stanton explains at the start of her script, the play “entirely takes place on the telephone, live radio, voice message, and intercom.” (Butt dials and accidental FaceTime calls also figure in.) As a result, no characters are ever in the same location as the protagonist, Emily, a 29-year-old Columbia J-school graduate who has returned to her native Hawaii having “failed in every single way” at life in New York.

The form is no random gesture; it’s customized to the theme. The problems that Emily (Jennifer Ikeda) has encountered, both as a young journalist and as a young woman, are problems of communication. The most serious relationship of her life folded for much the same reason many newspapers do: a disruption of traditional channels of direct interaction. (She lied to her boyfriend.) And now, abetted by depersonalizing technology, she can maintain a semblance of normal intimacy while actually shutting down.

Stanton dramatizes this cleverly. Thanks to all those voice messages and quick cellphone check-ins, we never see Emily fully interact with anyone: not her mother (Emily Kuroda), her father (Ron Domingo), her best friend back in New York (Nadine Malouf), her gay pal in Hawaii (Jonathan Brooks), her ex or even her would-be new boyfriend (both Ugo Chukwu). Rather, in 52 short scenes, many staged in isolation booths on Dane Laffrey’s set, she talks to them without taking the responsibility of seeing or receiving the nourishment of being seen.

Ikeda, an indispensable off-Broadway regular and a noted audiobook narrator, threads a difficult needle here, creating a character whose apparent competence and cheerful snark belie a crumbling core. What she says and what we see her expressing facially and bodily often do not match. Especially desperate is the attempted romance that forms the core of the play. Asked by a theatrical friend to impersonate a character on a drive-time radio show’s matchmaking segment, she falls for the voice of the man playing opposite her. Only under cover of this baroque disguise does she leave herself open to joy or heartbreak.

That plot, though certainly contrived, gives Stanton room for genuine comedy. (When an editor calls one of Emily’s articles “very disturbing,” Emily instantly responds, “Thank you so much.”) The supporting cast, under Kip Fagan’s swift but refreshingly unfevered direction, also delivers the laughs. In addition to their main characters, Malouf and Brooks play the hilariously cheesy shock jocks, with a full arsenal of rude taped noises. (Other effects are created live by Palmer Hefferan, the sound designer and foley artist.) Kuroda excels in a number of momlike roles, with a fresh Hawaiian spin. And Chukwu does a terrific job keeping his several characters both totally distinct and fully engaging.

But as the play turns more serious in the last third, finally revealing what happened in New York, the congruence of form and function begins to fray. Emily’s unhappiness starts to seem too idiosyncratic to support a larger, technological thesis just as Stanton’s signposting of that thesis becomes more insistent. At one point Emily, reading from an essay during a radio interview, baldly offers the play’s mission statement. “In a world where communication is effortlessly impersonal, an insistence on independence can be dangerous,” she says. “We are made up of thousands of others.”

Though true and even moving, it’s a clunker moment. It also flings open a door in the play’s construction that lets a lot of its littler problems and inconsistencies escape. (Having seen and read “Today Is My Birthday,” I still don’t know what the title is about.) But the chance to discover what’s effective and what isn’t in a young playwright’s work is, after all, why Page 73 devotes itself to “developing the most talented early-career voices.” The company’s alumni include multiple prizewinners like Quiara Alegría Hudes, Robert Askins, Samuel D. Hunter and Heidi Schreck.

Stanton belongs among them. If “Today Is My Birthday” sometimes feels too narrowly driven to justify its own premises, it is also capable of great humor and poetry. I liked the way Emily’s father, a music librarian, indirectly defends the play’s method in discussing the music of Charles Ives: “He would notate the jumble of songs all together and that would be his composition.” And I loved the way Emily undercuts him — and the playwright herself — by then saying, “Doesn’t it sound terrible?”

Production Notes:

‘Today Is My Birthday’

Through Dec. 23 at the New Ohio Theater in Manhattan; 866-811-4111, page73.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Credits: By Susan Soon He Stanton; directed by Kip Fagan; sets by Dane Laffrey; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Jennifer Schriever; sound and foley by Palmer Hefferan; props by Alison Mantilla; production stage manager, Kara Kaufman; assistant stage manager, Justin Myhre; production management by Intuitive Production Management. Presented by Page 73, Michael Walkup, producing artistic director, Jennifer Lagundino, managing director.

Cast: Jonathan Brooks (DJ Loki, Grandpa Z, Landon, Dr. Johannes Connection, AmazingPresence72 and Marcus), Ugo Chukwu (Kurt, Keoni, Richard, Sebastian and Franklin), Ron Domingo (Dad, Bill and HPR), Jennifer Ikeda (Emily), Emily Kuroda (Mom, Mrs. Kobayashi, Mrs. Asuncion, Alyssa, Patsy and Joyce) and Nadine Malouf (Halima, DJ Solange, female voice, hostess, Goddess Sweet Leilani and @JadedHeart808).