Smashing Actors in Tiny Spaces Sparkle in Season’s Best Comedy

There’s a super play downtown at the tiny Soho Rep with the unusual title of [sic], and it’s the best new comedy I’ve seen in many a season. Why, it’s almost as if its hitherto unknown author, Melissa James Gibson, isn’t quite responsible for it-as if the odd, wry characters in [sic] have a life of their own, which they most certainly do. Best to leave it as it is, she’s telling us. Ms. Gibson, at 36, may be a late developer. In which case: thrice times welcome .

She’s written a wonderfully original take on urban friendship and the comedy of manners-a Design for Living for our times that has been brilliantly directed by Daniel Aukin, who pulls off almost as many surprises as his dramatist. Ms. Gibson’s three friends are as smart as Noël Coward’s renowned artistic trio, but not as stylishly successful, not by a long chalk. Failure-or Failing to Make It-is more her calling card, her style a matter of articulate weirdness.

Consider this from Frank: “Be on the lookout for strange spots on otherwise uniformly colored food. That’s my best advice.”

Or this from Babette: “Before I knew Frank, Larry told me he was saving up money to be frozen.”

Let’s not leave out forlorn Theo: “In lieu of living with my wife,” he announces, “I would like to end up with someone with a fondness for remaining.”

I’d say the trio are all in their late 20′s or early 30′s, though the dramatist doesn’t specify. The future and the promise of fulfilled, happy lives is a little too slyly frayed here for the usual graduate angst. Ms. Gibson transcends a specific generation by tuning into the comic, loony texture of all disconnected life. The problem with David Lindsay-Abaire’s manic new comedy of marital disaster, Wonder of the World , with Sarah Jessica Parker, is that we don’t believe its unhinged, unreal premise. The talented Mr. Lindsay-Abaire has cornered himself into being merely sitcom “madcap.” But however nutty Ms. Gibson’s [sic] might appear, the piece never loses its moorings. We believe in her lost, off-the-wall characters bonding over wicked landlords and floating party anxiety or anything else that springs to mind. They’re us.

We also have three perfectly balanced, first-rate performances to match Ms. Gibson’s wit. Theo (Dominic Fumusa) is a struggling composer of the theme music for an amusement-park ride called Thrill-o-Rama. He takes his Art seriously. Wouldn’t you? “Are you saying,” he protests with volcanic indignation, “the average pimply prepubescent doesn’t deserve a real musical score for his amusement-park ride experience?” Theo composes about two bad bars of Shostakovich a year, sometimes segueing accidentally into “Mack the Knife.” His wife left him without warning. He’s now in love with his next-door neighbor, Babette, but that isn’t going to work out.

Babette (Cristina Kirk, who’s an outstanding new discovery, at least to me) is the one who announces that she gets depressed in retrospect. She’s an aspiring writer of “a compendium of 20th-century outburst,” and that isn’t going to work out, either. She borrows money to get by, or sells her possessions. “Well, has the fur vase sold?” she asks Larry over the phone. “I know there was water damage, but …. What about the lamp covered with those charming depictions of mid-century coal-mining agitation? Are you sure you’ve displayed it prominently enough?”

Babette is living in fantasy limbo next-door to Frank (played by the coolly relaxed James Urbaniak in the third perfect performance of the evening). Grieving, understated Frank, the former lover of store owner Larry, is training diligently to become an auctioneer via a home-study cassette tape from the Missouri Auction School, Kansas City. Among the play’s pleasures are his alliterative tongue-twisters that tutor his talky, tentative technique. At any arbitrary moment, Frank will announce, for example, “Sally sought some seeds to sow but sadly soon it snowed.” Or the more insinuating “‘Course your cousin couldn’t kiss you ’cause you can’t kiss kin.” And the more mysterious “At least leave the lederhosen.”

Language itself is a playful interest of Ms. Gibson’s-clichés disguising feeling, words for their own sake that fill the void. (“At least leave the lederhosen.”) The auction school displays its own articulate scholarship, pointing out the essential difference between mere filler words and the auctioneer’s lightning-fast calling of the bids, which is closer, of course, to a rhythmically incomprehensible chant. The play is partly about the games of language, the games we play in compulsive talk as comforting and arbitrary as the friends we make.

In the closing rooftop scene, the three of them literally play games-a form of bedtime story. “Do you wanna play Choose Your Parents?” “Do you wanna play All the Conversations I Don’t Want to Have?” Or “Teacher’s Doubts Panned Out?”

“What about the People I Meant to Sleep With?”

“Oh, please, Babette. We don’t have all night.”

The master stroke of Mr. Aukin’s production is the inspired oddity of his work with his set designer, Louisa Thompson. We’re thrust into another world from the moment we see the friends’ three minuscule apartments side-by-side, but no bigger than broom closets. That’s where they live and sleep-quite comfortably, actually-while venturing out in search of harmless friendly fire. The masterly theater experimenter, RobertLepage, couldn’t have dreamed up a more beguiling stage picture. Beneath the minute homes, we can even half-glimpse a warring couple living and splitting up in their apartment. We sometimes hear the dance of death, the ritual monosyllabic parting of the ways.

So Mr. Aukin has created a visual equivalent to Rear Window in his own tiny theater that matches the originality of Ms. Gibson’s unusually refreshing play. At 15 bucks a ticket, you could therefore save yourself $465 by not paying the top ticket price on Broadway. If you ask me, Melissa James Gibson’s [sic] is a very good reason to head downtown.