Melissa James Gibson's fascinating plays have a way of illuminating the idiosyncrasies of contemporary American communication, with dialogue that revels in our linguistic weirdness and marvels at what our offhand remarks reveal about the speaker. So the title of her latest play,

What Rhymes with America?, seems a fitting encapsulation of the befuddled frustrations wrought upon her smart yet stymied characters—the question is more of an unanswerable koan (unless you count Kramerica), but it points to our culture's always potent mix of lyricism and utter inanity.

The funny yet melancholy play, deftly directed by frequent Gibson collaborator Daniel Aukin, centers around a recently divorced economist named Hank (portrayed with hilariously dry determination by Chris Bauer) as he struggles to repair his relationship with his estranged teenage daughter (Aimee Carrero) while also dipping his toe in the dating scene with an endearingly awkward 40-year-old virgin played by Seana Kofoed. Hank's wife never sets foot on stage, but her presence looms large for him—though not as large as the show-stopping performance unleashed by Da'Vine Joy Randolph, a frustrated actor employed as a supernumerary at the opera alongside Hank (he's moonlighting to pay the alimony). Like planets spinning out of orbit in Gibson's lonely universe, these four cross paths on their anarchic journeys, blathering to themselves and occasionally listening, but barely making contact.

We recently spoke with Gibson about What Rhymes with America, which continues at the Atlantic Theater through Sunday.

When I was scheduling this interview, I was told you were "in the writer's room all week." What does that mean? I'm working as a staff writer on a new cable television show that's on FX. It's called The Americans and it starts early in January.

What's it about? It's a really interesting premise. It's 1981 Reagan-era America, and it's about a couple of deep cover Russian spies living as Americans. It's a really cool pilot. The creator is a guy named Joe Weisberg. So that's what I'm doing.

How did you get involved with this? Well, television was something that I was beginning to explore and I was submitted for it and interviewed and it worked out. Of course, there aren't too many shows that are New York-based, so it was a good opportunity. It's brand new for me.

Have you written for T.V. before? I'd written a pilot but I'd never been part of the staff on a show so it's all brand new.

How much of a stretch is it in terms of adapting to such a different format? Well it's really, really interesting. It's been often a crash course. In this medium everything is very much more dependent upon incidents and plot and events. In the world of theater that's wide open, whereas here it's a requirement to start there, actually.

It's a requirement to start where? It's just that everything is about incident. Everything is about plot, in a different way. You also have the constraints of 42 minutes, four acts. That can be an exciting thing but it's a different construct.

You're also collaborating with other writers now, right? That's right. In the writer's room we do what's called—I had to learn all the lingo as soon as I started. We do what's called "breaking the story" together, so we've done that as a group. Then we're each assigned different episodes to write. My first episode starts filming in January. Of course there's a lot of feedback and a lot of loops and the creator and the showrunner are very involved. So yeah it's a much more collaborative medium as far as the writing, for sure. So that's been another big thing to learn about.

You are not the first person in theater I would think of to be writing for television. And why is that?

I think your plays tend to be less naturalistic than a lot of other theater I see. And that's what interests me about them. T.V. is usually so rigidly naturalistic. Yeah it's a very different thing and also it's a really particular world. What is so fascinating and challenging—especially being in at this stage, and again I'm a staff writer not the creator—nevertheless, we're sort of building a word. It's a series on the ground level so there's a lot of talking about the rules of the world, so to speak, the different circumstances. That's been really fun to navigate but also there's a huge question of what's the tone of this show? You have a little bit of a blueprint in terms of the pilot, which already existed, but still there's a lot to be figured out. So I found that really, really fascinating too. I'm really enjoying trying to enter into a different zone so that I'm serving the world but also hopefully bringing the things I have to offer to it. It's a really interesting thing because you are, on a certain level, serving someone else's vision. But if you're not bringing yourself to it you're of no use, you know what I mean? It's been, as I said, this really interesting crash course.

How long have you been doing it? Since September, beginning of September.

Are you also still writing other things? Or at the end of the day are you just drained? No, I'm definitely still writing plays at the same time. I used to have a day job—we've talked before, right?

Yeah in 2009, I think. Exactly. At that point I had a day job for many years, which actually continued right up until this gig. So I'm very used to having a full time job and writing outside of that. So now it's just that my full time job is writing! [laughs] But I'm also writing outside of that.

What was your day job before this? I was a college counselor for many years at a private school in Brooklyn, St. Ann's. It's a wonderful school, really cool school. I was there pretty much since graduate school, other than two fellowship years. So my setup has always been stealing time in the middle of the night or mornings and stuff like that. In a way, this will open up time because of course there's a hiatus built into the structure, whereas my other job didn't have that.

Is it safe to assume that your experience there inspired one of the characters in your new play? Oh sure, to some degree, absolutely. I spent a lot of time around that age for many, many years. I find it a really particular and beautiful and challenging time in life.

I thought the play was really funny and really sad. Not depressing sad but it was definitely... there was a really good mix of things that made me laugh and things that were true but sad. Oh, thank you.

So how long did you spend working on it? As with everything, I'm so crummy with time because there's a lot of on-and-offness, especially given the way I've had to sort of work for all these years. I would say a couple of year in fits and starts.

(Kevin Thomas Garcia)

Judging by the title, I thought that it was going to be somewhat more political. Were you intending to create that expectation for people walking into it and do you think there's a political aspect to it under the surface? I wasn't trying to create any particular expectation—though I'm curious to hear that that was something that affected your experience—but no, I was really trying to explore this particular landscape and this particular moment. The sort of economic aspects of the play and those struggles and the personal level of what it means to be an individual American slash human. Navigating one's way through this particular cultural moment is what I was thinking about. Of course all of these people are in very different stages of life, but I think part of what's going on for all of them is the effect of foiled ambition. Just how vulnerable one has to make oneself to try and achieve anything. How loss impacts everything we try to do, and that seems for me very related to trying to be a member of this society.

I don't know how much of this, per se, feels present in the play but it's something that I think about all the time. Balancing me as the individual and who I am in this world, in this city, in this country. How am I contributing to who we are as a society? So I'm just, in general, very interested in the micro/macro and I think the title, for me, gets at that a little bit.

I keep thinking about that scene where the father character is in bed with the woman for the first time and she has her shirt off and then the phone rings and he ends up taking the call. Is that something that's based on personal experience or a story you heard? [Laughs] It's not based on a specific personal experience but I think we've all been there emotionally in a million different ways. That scenario just sort of came to me one day and it just seemed like it would be a satisfying thing to explore because it has the potential for that beautiful mix of painful and funny, which is the thing I'm most interested in. I like the thing of these two human one way they're in exactly the same place and in another they're in very, very different places. And of course that's true for all of us all the time! But I thought they played it beautifully, I feel lucky to have these great actors in the show.

Then there's that thing where you've spent some time trying to get over someone and just when you meet someone new—or think that you've put it behind you—then the person you're trying to get over resurfaces, right on cue. [Laughs] Inevitably, right? That's so true because that's how life works! Yes, exactly. Called forth from the universe!

The performances were so great; it's such a smart cast. And [director] Daniel Aukin is someone you've worked with a lot in the past, right? Yeah, pretty much.

What is it that makes your collaboration so fruitful. Are you two soul mates? It seems like he gets you. The second part of this question is whether you are worried about other people directing your plays? They seem really delicate, in terms of the way they need to be performed and directed. They are really delicate creatures, I agree. This is true of everything, but it does feel like there are a million ways things could go wrong in hands that didn't quite get the plays. But no, I think there are so many talented directors in the world and I know that there are many different ways to realize the plays successfully. But it's just so far been such a fruitful collaboration because it just feels like implicitly we're just building on this shared vocabulary, the shorthand. I guess with each play we're both getting a little older too! [Laughs] I feel really, really lucky because I think he's very gifted at finding carnal and emotional complexity without ever exerting a heavy hand.