NEW YORK — More so than her obsession with unlivably small apartments in New York and the angst of being in your mid-thirties without much to show for it, the playwright Melissa James Gibson, 39, is interested in the particulars of words.
“I just love language,” Gibson says in the basement of Soho Rep, where her new play, “Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance,” is playing. “I think about it a lot, along with intention and communication. How we try so hard to meet each other and yet there’s so much room for misunderstanding. How we can mean one thing and say another.”
“Suitcase” is Gibson’s follow-up to 2002’s “[Sic],” which had the longest run in the history of Soho Rep. Her new play features two graduate students, Jen and Sallie, toiling away on their dissertations in tiny living spaces and dealing with the tenuous relationships they have with their respective boyfriends. As if to show how insular the characters’ worlds are, Jen and Sallie never leave their desks and nearly all of the conversations occur over the telephone or via apartment intercoms. This leaves plenty of room for miscommunication.
As written, Gibson’s plays feature no punctuation, but she does offer stage directions, line breaks and capitalization. “A play is a blueprint,” she muses, likening a performance to a jazz riff. “The actors and directors are really interpreting the text along the way.” For a recent excerpt of “Suitcase” in The New York Times, Gibson had to add periods and commas. “It locked down the language and interrupted the rhythm as I heard it in my head.”
Unlike her characters, who are often stuck in a rut, with “Suitcase,” Gibson is poised for another hit. In her thus-far short career — she is also a drama teacher and a college counselor at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, though she is taking this year off — she already has developed certain trademarks beyond the way her plays look on the page. There are the pithy aphorisms (“Yes friends of friends should befriend one another and enjoy one Massive Tenuous Relationship It would be easier for the rest of us”); witty banter emanating from linguistic tics (a dissertation is “ongoing” but also “un-going” so that “Its un-going is ongoing”), and found objects (“[Sic]” employed an old auctioneer’s tape for a character trying to be an auctioneer, while “Suitcase” uses home movies from the Thirties and Forties of Gibson’s mother-in-law as a child).
And sometimes even the linguistic tics are found objects, as in one particularly hilarious insult out of “Suitcase.” “Years and years ago, a friend of a really close friend of mine was taking a Spanish language class and they were trying to one-up each other with gross things they could say in Spanish,” Gibson remembers. “And one of them said, ‘Talking to you is like eating a hair omelette,’ and that always stayed with me as a particularly potent and awful thing.”