“All these funny expressions” — Melissa James Gibson

Starting with PEN America 8: Making Histories, each issue of PEN America has included at least one excerpt from a play. In the last few issues we’ve published dramatic work by Petr Zelenka, Sarah Ruhl, George Packer, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Nilo Cruz, and most recently, Melissa James Gibson.

I’m surprised more literary magazines don’t publish drama; while scripts are written to be performed, the best ones tend to work beautifully on the page as well. That’s certainly the case with This, the play by Melissa James Gibson that we excerpted in PEN America 12: Correspondences.

Gibson has a wonderful ear for the everyday absurdities of colloquial speech:
All these funny expressions
Just Got The Baby Down
It’s like the baby’s depressed or
or like you’ve finally succeeded in oppressing the baby
I Just Got The Baby Down
I Just Got The Baby Down

This is from the opening scene; Alan is at the apartment of two college friends, Tom and Marrell, whose newborn baby never stays asleep for long. Another college friend, Jane, has joined them for a dinner party, along with Jean-Pierre, a French friend of Tom and Marrell’s.
Jean-Pierre’s a doctor
(with emphasis) Without Borders

I always think that sounds like the doctor has a messy personal life

That’s frequently the case actually

I’m a cabinet maker without borders

Tom and Marrell are trying to set Jean-Pierre up with Jane, a teacher and poet. When a surprisingly involved discussion of whether a “Brita” water filter should be pronounced with a short ‘i’ sound or a long ‘e’ sound (like “Rita”), Jean-Pierre turns to Jane as the expert on language:
You’re the poet

More of a standardized test proctor these days actually
And I teach a bit

She’s being modest Don’t be modest

I’m an aMAZing standardized test proctor
The scene is full of funny, awkward, and tense exchanges, especially after the characters begin to play a parlor game—one that brilliantly highlights the way language can carry meanings other than the ones we intend. One person (Jane, as it hapens) must leave the room, while the others allegedly create a story in her absence. Then she must return to the room and piece the story together by asking a series of yes-or-no questions. But, as Tom and Marrell inform Alan and Jean-Pierre after Jane has left the room, the real game is that there is no story, and that Jane will construct one herself through her questions. I’ll simply say that this does not go well.

In Gibson’s work, as Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times, “even the drabbest constellations of vowels and consonants—words like ‘this,’ in other words—are made to soar and leap like ballet dancers in full, ecstatic flight, or alternately stand alone in a sea of silence, ominous and resonant, like those pregnant pauses in a Pinter play.”

You can read some of the excerpt we published at PEN.org; for the rest, pick up a copy of PEN America 12. And keep an eye out for Melissa James Gibson’s next play.

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