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The Academic Abject
By Una Chaudhuri

Suitcase, or Those That Resemble Flies From a Distance
By Melissa James Gibson
Soho Rep
46 Walker St.
Box office: (212) 868-4444

David Mamet once explained the title of his play Oleanna as follows: “Oleanna was the name of one of the great failed utopias of the nineteenth century. My play is about the great failed utopia of the twentieth century—academia.” Mamet’s challenging characterization (which has generally gone unnoticed, overshadowed by the play’s incendiary gender politics), goes a long way towards explaining the current status of academia in the American cultural imaginary. Few institutions are readier targets for scorn and suspicion than the modern English Department. Witness, for example, those almost-annual New York Times articles that lampoon the MLA convention as a festival of ludicrous posturing, and literature scholars as theory-addled scoundrels. A few seasons ago, Margaret Edson’s play Wit transmuted that habitual condescension into a kind of grudging respect, if only because literary training seemed to offer its protagonist, an English professor, some philosophical ammunition against the terminal cancer she was battling. In Suitcase, academia is the disease itself rather than a balm for it; the play’s two protagonists are terminal dissertation-writers, and their academic endeavors are unquestionably to blame for the alienation and anguish that plague them.

Like Wit’s Dr. Vivian Bearing, the main characters of Suitcase, Sallie and Jen, are hyper-literate and super-self-conscious. Unlike her, however, the terror they have to face down is neither ultimate nor defining; they are not dying, merely not writing. Lacking a challenging target, their command of language turns pathological. Speaking to each other on improbably bright blue telephones which bring their voices to us over speakers, Sal and Jen become interchangeable, disembodied voices in an Ionescoesque universe where the language they possessed now possesses them. Compulsive word-wielders and phrase-makers, they exchange rapid-fire, epigrammatic accounts of their respective situations. The more they talk, however, the less we know them: their abjection at the hands of their “ungoing” dissertations makes them increasingly formless, increasingly marginal in their own lives.

“Life,” proclaims one of them, “disdains subtitles.” Perhaps it is a measure of the play’s distance from reality that it doesn’t merely have a subtitle, but one that requires annotation in the program, where it turns out to be a chip off that most dazzling of postmodern gems, Jorge Luis Borges’s “Chinese encyclopedia,” whose bizarre taxonomy of animals includes the category of “those that resemble flies from a distance.” Applied to the play, this category could refer either to Sally and Jen or to their hapless boyfriends, Karl and Lyle, who lurk far beneath the decidedly non-ivory towers in which the women are holed up. When you’re in dissertation hell, distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder; it makes the world grow smaller. Academic endeavor, it would seem, is a chronic condition whose chief symptom is a tendency to be masochistic, sadistic, and—most of all—reductive.

The ambitious task that the playwright, Melissa James Gibson, has set herself in Suitcase is the dramatization of a kind of self-inflicted suffering that is no less agonizing for being apparently pointless and unnecessary (the topics of both dissertations are classics of uselessness; one of them is, in fact, about garbage). In this quixotic endeavor she is ably assisted by a director, a cast, and designers who are quite brilliant at making something out of nothing. For example, Louisa Thompson’s ingenious set provides some clever commentary on the effects of so much cleverness. The entirety of the two women’s apartments are their desks, floating high above the stage. Their whole world is reduced to these cluttered work surfaces, behind which they are trapped. A tiny flip-up door on the downstage edge leads directly "onto" each desk, just as tiny windows there and behind them give views of a miniature cityscape. (Sallie uses binoculars to watch the home movies being shown in an apartment across the street: those that resemble flies from a distance become intriguing and individualized if you watch them carefully.) At ground level, two curved iron bars are banisters which the boyfriends all but impale themselves on as they seek desperately to make contact with their estranged partners.

While one waits in vain for the play to discover some redeeming quality of intellectual endeavor--something to explain why these women are sacrificing youth, beauty, health, and pleasure for this pointless exercise—the spatial arrangement begins to explore a different question: not “Why are these women doing this?” but rather “What do these men want?” The two boyfriends, doubly abjected though they are by academia—victims of its victims—gradually become much more compelling than the objects of their attention. As played by Jeremy Shamos and Thomas Jay Ryan, Karl and Lyle are determined to contest the fly-weight status their girlfriends have assigned them. Unlike Jen and Sallie, played with remarkable reticence and dry humor by Colleen Werthman and Christina Kirk, Karl and Lyle are free to experience and express their anguish in their bodies and in the world: they come and go, make phone-calls, press buzzers, speak though intercoms, climb the stairs, lean on banisters, lie on the ground, stand up, sit down, and climb the stairs again. They try to figure things out, explain their girlfriends to each other, and survive such verdicts as “you’re such a causal guy.”

The vitality of the boyfriends, theatrically satisfying though it is, also reads as hostility towards the women characters. Had this play been written by, say, David Mamet, it would surely have seemed like a sequel to the misogynistic portrayal of female academics that made Oleanna so controversial. The female authorship of Suitcase, like that of Wit, complicates the sexist implication, in both plays, that women can only do intellectual work by de-sexing themselves and forsaking their femininity. As worked through by women writers, perhaps this is not a case of gender-betrayal or female self-hatred but an instance of some courageous cultural stock-taking. Perhaps only a woman can look squarely at the misery caused by the long-established cultural opposition which divides thinking from feeling along gender lines, to the enduring detriment of both sexes.

Courageous though it may be, Suitcase is also crammed with so many dramatic styles and stage effects as to be almost impossible to heave into theatrical life. The speaker phones and intercoms form part of a Wooster-Groupish media-saturation that seems quite at odds with the play’s fundamental interest in the role of words and ideas in shaping human experience. Listening in on family tapes with Jen, or watching strangers’ home-movies with Sallie, brings us no closer to either character. The flickering images we see projected on the back wall and the forlorn family interactions we hear when Jen turns on her tape-machine only supply another, more familiar, order of abjection from the one Jen and Sallie have fallen victim to. That personal ill-treatments and disappointments might lurk behind the women’s intellectual delirium is hardly enlightening. Instead it might be the lowest blow the cultural imaginary has yet dealt its favorite whipping boy: the academic abject as a downtown version of good-old family dysfunction.