Like her heroines, Melissa James Gibson is an intelligent woman who’s let graduate school take over her life. Jen and Sallie will never finish their dissertations. Jen, who rejects all words that allude to even transient relationships (she refuses to call her boyfriend her boyfriend), has been studying ways to construct strangers’ identities by searching through their garbage. ( “She believes that what we discard is of much greater interest than what we keep,” says her nonboyfriend, Karl.) Since she can’t do so without the strangers’ permission, an ethical necessity in academia, “her dissertation is now garbage.” Sallie is writing about alternatives to standard narrative structure, works that run end-middle-beginning or middle-middle-middle instead of beginning-middle-end. Interestingly, as her boyfriend, Lyle, remarks, “she has trouble finishing things.” Instead she fixates on the minutiae of her encounters with her adviser, whom she’s attracted to but doesn’t find attractive.
As this sampling suggests, Gibson has a quick wit and an acute ear, but is more than a little fixated on minutiae herself. Jen and Sallie, glued to their desks and obsessing in the academic present, make an unappealingly static center for even 90 minutes’ scrutiny of verbal detritus; Karl and Lyle, who at least get to move around, seem to have no life at all beyond obsessing over Jen and Sallie. The four performers in Daniel Aukin’s production are all appealing, especially Jeremy Shamos, but have virtually nothing to do. Despite Gibson’s bright bursts of vaudevillian humor, her Nicholson Baker-like navelistic contemplations quickly turn oppressive in a narrative so middle-middle-middle. Karl brings Jen suitcases full of garbage as love gifts; pity reviewers can’t be tempted that way.