SAN DIEGO — The characters in "Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance" would probably relish an opportunity to analyze the title of the play they inhabit, at La Jolla Playhouse.
The two women in this mildly amusing but generally frustrating comedy are doctoral students, each stuck in the swamp of a never-ending dissertation. Welcoming any ruminative digression that comes their way, they would quickly point out that "Suitcase" refers literally to the bags of other people's garbage that Jen (Colleen Werthmann) is deconstructing as part of her research, and figuratively to all the intellectual baggage that prevents them from accomplishing anything.
As for that strange subtitle, "those that resemble flies from a distance," the women probably would recognize it as one of several whimsical classifications of animals from an essay by Jorge Luis Borges. In the play, it's an apt description of characters who flit from one subject to another, buzzing as they go. Unlike flies, however, these women are not physically mobile. Each is stuck behind a desk in a cramped New York apartment.
Jen and Sallie (Christina Kirk) would be delighted that New York playwright Melissa James Gibson apparently had a problem selecting a title for her play -- each would probably take months to decide on a final dissertation title.
Sallie would especially appreciate the structure of Gibson's play -- it would fit right in with her dissertation on "alternative means of storytelling."
Trying to explain Sallie's thesis, her boyfriend, Lyle (Thomas Jay Ryan), refers to narratives that are "middle-middle-middle instead of beginning-middle-end." "Suitcase" is very middle-middle-middle.
At times, Daniel Aukin's staging also approaches the status of muddle-muddle-muddle. A reading of Gibson's script after a viewing of Aukin's production reveals a number of details that weren't apparent in the theater, some of them obscured by the artifice of Louisa Thompson's set.
The women's apartments, with tiny toy doors, are perched on platforms on the sides of the stage.
Most of the action, however, takes place in the vestibule, the staircases and stairwells of the apartment building, as Lyle and Jen's boyfriend, Karl (Jonathan M. Woodward, in early Bill Murray mode), try to obtain the women's permission to enter and communicate in person with them. The men's movements are confusing, because the staircases are merely sketched, not very clearly, at the front of Thompson's set. It's often difficult to tell where the men are.
The larger problem, however, is the script. Comedy of inertia, in which characters can't seem to move forward, is difficult to sustain for 90 minutes, with no intermission. On the way out, one playgoer was overheard expressing surprise that the play lasted only 90 minutes -- "it felt like hours," she sniffed.
To their credit, the boyfriends try to advance the story, through their unceasing efforts to talk with the women face to face. To Gibson's credit, she hasn't fallen for the conventional wisdom that it's the men who try to avoid commitment. Karl even manages to propose to Jen, although in the most roundabout way imaginable. For his efforts, he gets little more than a comment on what a strange word "propose" is.
The impatience that "Suitcase" provokes might also stem in part from its setting among untethered New York singles. After a decade in which the two most popular TV comedy series, "Seinfeld" and "Friends," were set in the same milieu, minus most of the academic in-jokes, a play that now returns to that environment feels a little retro.
The feeling is reinforced because the miscommunication in "Suitcase" takes place almost entirely through corded telephones and closed doors, not through cellphones and e-mail, with their more recent methods of scrambling meaning. Sallie even uses a typewriter instead of a computer -- yet there are no other indications that the play's main characters aren't supposed to be contemporary.
That's not true for a couple of subplots. Jen's research in strangers' garbage digs up an audiotape of a girl's Christmases in 1973, 1978 and 2002 -- from which we hear excerpts. Through a window, Sallie watches a neighbor's idyllic home movies from five or six decades ago, and glimpses of them are projected at the rear of the stage.
But these scenes from other people's lives are too trite to add dimension to this clever but slight "Suitcase."
`Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance'
Where: Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Playhouse, UC San Diego campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays,
7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Aug. 8
Price: $29 to $52
Contact: (858) 550-1010
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Thomas Jay Ryan...Lyle
Jonathan M. Woodward...Karl
By Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Daniel Aukin. Set by Louisa Thompson. Costumes by Maiko Matsushima. Lighting by Matt Frey. Sound by Shane Rettig. Projections by Elaine J. McCarthy. Composer Michael Friedman. Stage manager Dana Victoria Anderson.