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 on 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.
Ms. 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.
Ms. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. Malouf and Mr. 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.) Ms. Kuroda excels in a number of momlike roles, with a fresh Hawaiian spin. And Mr. Chukwu does a terrific job keeping his several characters both totally distinct and fully engaging.