Today is my Birthday at Theatre Exile

            The New York Times called it a a quirky comedy by an award-winning screenwriter about finding a true human connection in a digital-obsessed world in its review of the 2017 off-off Broadway production of “Today is My Birthday.”  It’s about a young woman who moves back home to Hawaii from New York where she’d earned a degree from the prestigious Columbia University. She hoped to try to find herself. I looked forward to seeing this tale of Emily Chang as she deals with the complicated relationships with family, friends, and the workplace. Sadly, I found this production long (1:45 without an intermission) and tedious.

            The play, by Susan Soon He Stanton, is told through phone conversations that Emily has with her mother and father (who are divorcing), and with a dozen others played by two actors, Joseph Ahmed and Rachel O’Hanlon Rodriguez. These two play her best friend, her  ex-boyfriend, a prospective new boyfriend, a shock jock and more. But all the contacts with these people is via phone. It is the digital age. There are probably five dozen phone conversations that create the substance of the play. And there is substance.

            Emily flirts with a guy who is a character in a radio show segment that she did via computer.. She falls for the guy. She tries to deal with her ex-boyfriend. One call falls on the heels of another.  She talks to her parents as she tries to understand what happened in their relationship. She talks to everyone. She talks and talks and talks. The play would probably make a good radio program, not necessarily a good play.  I need actors to show me how they feel, not constantly tell me.

            As Emily’s parents,  Daniel Kim and Twoey Truong were convincing.  Not as effective were Ahmed and Rodriguez who do only a serviceable job in portraying the myriad of characters.  The bigger problem I had with the production was with the lead. Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters who played Emily did not successfully portray a struggling 29-year old woman.. There are so many issues she is dealing with, but she plays them with one note, that of an annoying teenager who complained more than she lamented. This adolescent-like whining simply did not support the depth of the character.

            Director Cat Ramirez had some fun creating entrances and exits through cabinets under the kitchen sink and through the refrigerator, but she didn’t take us inside the characters in anything but a superficial way. Sometimes Stanton’s play didn’t need it as when a character pressed the wrong button or made a butt call- it was funny. But it wasn’t enough to give us the depth of Emily’s real struggle negotiating the life of a young woman in turmoil. The play deserved more.

“Today is my Birthday” by Susan Soon He Stanton. Thru May 22, 2022. Theatre Exile, 1340 S.13th Street, Philadelphia 19147.  215-218-4022

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