Thursday, April 09, 2009


"I recount my life to homeless people on the street," Leila explains in Crystal Skillman's Birthday. "I go to the tops of towers and scream out my life. MTA guys. Waitresses. Cab drivers try to tell me their shit but I cut them off and tell them what happened to me."

Leila tells this to, of course, a stranger in a bar after telling him a bizarrely personal story (unprovoked, of course). Why does she do this? Perhaps this is because it's easier to be honest with someone you'll never have to see again. Perhaps because she doesn't really have anyone in her life she's close to. Or perhaps it's a little bit of both.

Regardless, Leila is profoundly sad and lonely, yet wants to put on a brave face. She's a woman who's almost constantly smiling, yet almost constantly wiping away — or stifling — tears. She wants someone to save her, yet is either too proud to ask for help, or doesn't know how to ask.

In Birthday, Skillman's sweet, sad and low-key comedy, directed by Daniel Talbott, Leila ducks away from a company birthday party held at a bar to a nearly empty side room. The birthday girl in question is someone she barely knows (and doesn't particularly want to): just one of Leila's co-workers for whom she has quiet, seething contempt. In the side room, she finds Kyle, a slightly older man sitting and drinking by himself. We in the audience can see that he, too, is harboring some deep-rooted pain and sadness, but is much more reserved about displaying it than Leila.

Through the course of this very short play (only 40 minutes long), Leila and Kyle listen to one another, share their feelings of loss and inadequacies, and offer each other as much solace as they can.

All of this would be unbearably depressing if Skillman's writing wasn't so funny and compassionate or if Talbott's direction wasn't so light and easygoing. Fortunately, the script and direction give Birthday a great deal of levity and gentleness as well as truthfulness. And the first-rate performances by Julie Kline and Denis Butkus make their characters very believable and sympathetic.

There are so many details of modern-day New York life that Birthday captures in wonderfully subtle ways, from some of Leila's oddball stories (one of them involving an old man asking her on the street about where to score some tail), to the obligatory existential crises one has when they're about to turn 30, to Kyle showing Leila photos on his iPhone. That the play is in fact staged in the back room of a bar also gives it some nice authenticity.

As Birthday deftly shows, New York is definitely a place where one can find the urge to scream out one's life to total strangers out of sadness and desperation. But it's also a town where sometimes you can find someone who'll listen.

Birthday is playing at Seventh Street Small Stage, Downstairs at Jimmy's No. 43 (43 East Seventh Street) until April 10. For reservations call (212) 946-5198.

Getting chomped in the tit by horses,

James "Birthday Suit" Comtois

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