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Review: ‘Today is My Birthday,’ a quirky exploration of connection and solitude

An aspiring journalist returns to Hawaii to find a new life.

(From left) Rachel O'Hanlon-Rodriguez, Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters, and Joseph Ahmed in Theatre Exile's final show of their 2021-22 season, "Today is My Birthday."
(From left) Rachel O'Hanlon-Rodriguez, Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters, and Joseph Ahmed in Theatre Exile's final show of their 2021-22 season, "Today is My Birthday."Read morePaola Nogueras

This unusual theater season has been packed with shows, old and new, purporting to comment on the challenges of our pandemic times. The final production of Theatre Exile’s 25th anniversary season, Susan Soon He Stanton’s Today is My Birthday, has a better claim than most to that distinction.

This episodic, slightly overlong, but ingratiating tech comedy — by a producer/writer for HBO’s Succession — is a meditation on the perils and pleasures of both connection and solitude. Though performed Off Broadway in 2017, it resonates differently now, with the question of when and how to socialize, and with whom, still preoccupying us.

Today is My Birthday (a title that seems deliberately obscure) is set in Hawaii and peopled with oddball characters trying to transcend past mistakes and chart better futures. The protagonist, 29-year-old Emily (Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters), is an aspiring journalist with a master’s degree from Columbia University. A painful breakup has sent her scurrying home from New York City. But back in Hawaii, her long-married parents are divorcing, her job prospects are limited, and her romantic pickings are slim.

The show’s central conceit is that Emily is never in the same room as any of the other characters. She communicates with them by cellphone, landline, voice message, radio broadcast (featuring two annoyingly clownish deejays), or other tech tools.

Nevertheless, these characters appear on stage via the metaphorical magic of theater. In director Cat Ramirez’s staging, they enter and exit You-Shin Chen’s realistic apartment set in comically idiosyncratic ways, passing through a refrigerator, under a sink, and through windows. It’s a device thoroughly in keeping with the play’s quirky spirit.

Emily is a flawed creature, prone to anger and hasty judgments, and not always honest. She screams at her mother, beds her boss in an attempt to make a temp job permanent, tries to order her ex around, drinks too much, and often seems out of control. But her spontaneity is charming, too, and the multitalented Walters retains our sympathy throughout. (Also a playwright, she is a recent winner of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Terrence McNally Award for Acetone Wishes and Plexiglass Dreams, the third installment of her Koreatown trilogy.)

Emily’s most solid succor comes from her friends, including her gay buddy Landon (Joseph Ahmed, who also plays several other male roles) and her married-with-two-kids best friend, Halima (Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, who doubles ably in various female roles). Halima is headed towards loneliness herself if she can’t stop sabotaging her mostly happy marriage.

Emily’s parents are more comfortable with their pending divorce than she is. Daniel Kim is especially fine as her tender, music-loving father. Twoey Truong, as her mother, is well-meaning, but insanely irritating as only mothers of daughters can be.

Stanton’s play lacks a strong dramatic arc. Incidents happen. Characters interact — or fail to. The past resurfaces, and the future is difficult to predict, or construct. But Emily does, finally, learn a thing or two — mainly that it’s best to pursue her passions rather than pretend to be someone or something that she’s not. That doesn’t mean she’ll end up with either a stable relationship or a financially viable career. But there is always tomorrow, and all the birthdays to come.

“Today is My Birthday” is presented by Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., through May 22. Masks and vaccination proof required. Tickets: $10-$35. Information: 215-218-4022 or