nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 6, 2009
Birthday is the newest in Rising Phoenix Rep's ongoing series of site-specific mini-plays at the Seventh Street Small Stage (behind Jimmy's No. 43). I love these works because they're always fresh and inventive, finding neat ways to make theatre in the back room of a pub/restaurant feel natural and organic. The actors are always top-notch and the production values are spare and economical and dead-on. And the whole experience is always under an hour (Birthday clocks in at about 40 minutes in length), and because the curtain time is 6pm, there's time after the show for a full rest-of-the-evening: dinner, another show (or movie), or in my case last night, back home for some nighttime writing and working.
Rising Phoenix Rep gets how we live now. Birthday, by one of their resident scribes, the blessedly prolific Crystal Skillman, totally gets how we live now. It takes place in the back room of pub/restaurant, just like the one we're sitting in. In the main part of the restaurant (offstage), an office birthday party is winding down. Leila, the temp who works the front desk at said office, has escaped from the hubbub. Her temporariness is starting to get to her; it's also (as we suspect all along, though she doesn't confess it until a while has passed) her own birthday today—no one in the office knows this, though, so they are celebrating Joan's birthday out there in the party.
In this backroom, waiting for Leila (although he probably doesn't realize that's what he's been doing) is Kyle. He's a bit older than Leila, bemused, quiet, wise at the edges, and just as done in by ephemeralness of life as she is.
Birthday is a romantic comedy, sort of; it's a lovely, sweet play of connection and camaraderie.
And it's so grounded in 2009 that two of its key elements are karaoke and an iPhone. When these come together—with the iPhone plugged into the back room's speakers, playing Neil Young's "Harvest"—it makes for an irresistible climax. I loved the moment, too, when Kyle brings his iPhone to Leila to show her some photos of his family. Skillman picks up details of the trappings of our lives and makes them sing resonantly.
Daniel Talbott directs the piece with his customary grace. The actors are Rising Phoenix members Julie Kline and Denis Butkus, and their work is very compelling and very real.