Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Today Is My Birthday
Also see Rebecca's review of Reverie
Emily (Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters) is our protagonist, a 29-year-old Columbia journalism school graduate who has returned to her native Hawaii from New York City. Emily has a temp job and goes out from time to time, but we mostly encounter her chatting on the phone. Frustratingly quick conversations with her best friend Hailma (Rachel O'Hanlon Rodriguez), who is dealing with a suspicious husband and their two young children. Brief chats with her mother (Twoey Truong), who offers lots of unsolicited advice and instructs her to call her father more. More meaningful talks with her father (Daniel Kim) about divorce, music, and why she doesn't visit more despite her new proximity. Emily also reaches out via cell phone to a few local friends (Joseph Ahmed), her temporary boss (also Ahmed), and a local radio station. Except for Walters, the ensemble all play multiple roles, and do so with impressive skill and great comic effect.
Almost all of the interaction takes place over the phone, in voicemail, and on broadcast radio. The characters are on stage together, crossing paths or sitting side by side, but they are also miles apart. You-Shin Chen's set design, which initially appears to be a fairly ordinary apartment, does a lot of the heavy lifting here. Hailma pops out from behind a painting on the wall, mom comes in through the cabinet under the sink, dad appears from the refrigerator, friends climb in through windows, and an entire DJ booth comes up on the back deck. It's very funny, but also thematically significant.
The play starts off poking fun at some of the traditional conflicts between parents and their adult children (mom is sending articles about the importance of getting a job and a man before 30 while dad complains about a lack of visits) but quickly moves into some fresh territory, giving Emily's parents room to grow into their own in unexpected ways. Emily's friends are similarly unique and interesting characters, each occupied with their own thoughts and problems.
If Emily's parents and friends are unusually insightful, Emily herself is a total disaster. Early on we discover that her return to Hawaii is really a poorly thought out post-break up retreat and that she is not writing, even though she claims she is doing everything in her power to get work as a journalist. Those poor choices are nothing compared to the truly disastrous and irresponsible decisions we discover she has made in the past and will make again before the play is over. Walters has an endearing self-deprecating sweetness that makes Emily's incompetence easy to relate to, but at some point I really found it hard to keep rooting for her.
The problem may be that Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters does not create enough dissonance between the version of herself Emily puts out over the phone and the one she is living alone in her apartment. There are several spots where the pace of the production slows and the play feels confused thematically, precisely because Emily seems to be expressing herself quite accurately and effectively over the phone. As a result we are forced to wonder if Emily is a sympathetic young adult doing her best to make her way in the world or just a selfish person putting her friends and family at risk with her impulsive decisions.
I wish the play wrestled more with how other forms of modern communication impact our lives and relationships. By limiting the majority of Emily's communications to voice conversations and live radio broadcasts, Stanton misses an opportunity to talk about the ways texting, video chats, and social media also keep us connected and isolated. Despite that missed opportunity, Today Is My Birthday is still very entertaining and worth seeing for yourself, if only for the ample smiles and nostalgia it provides.
Today Is My Birthday runs through May 22, 2022, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please call 215-218-4022 or visit theatreexile.org. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a valid ID are required to attend, and guests must remain masked throughout the show.