A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As in sic and Suitcase, Gibson uses her distinctive gift for teasing the comic potential from the troubling and painful stages of adulthood that tend to alter the script of one's life story from "this is what my life will be" to "this is what my life is." While her latest group of characters are now nearing or just past that fateful life marker, their fortieth birthdays, and the this situations that they're still struggling to deal with include parenting and, yes, death, they still do so in Gibson's giddy but completely natural, keenly timed style of word play studded conversation —a style that on the page is unconventionally upper and lower cased, formatted like a long poem and somehow suggesting cryptic stage directions.
To enhance the dialogue's jazzy rhythm, This includes several songs which fit in perfectly since Marrell, the character singing them, is a jazz singer/composer played by Eisa Davis who was last seen in the musical Passing Strange. Gibson also manages to deepen her characters' stories with some pertinent tidbits about race, religion and politics.
This begins cheerfully, almost sitcom-like, with a dinner party at Marrell's (Davis) and Tom's (Darren Pettie) home. The guests are Jane (Julianne Nicholson) and Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), close buddies since their college days. A late arrival is Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a doctor working with the international organization Doctors Without Borders. Jean-Pierre, a newcomer to this little circle, has been invited by Marrell in hopes of getting Jane a published poet (though not for the last 15 years) to pick up the pieces of her life which shattered when her husband Roy died a year ago.
This set-up and the actors — all giving individualized, terrific performances — quickly engage our interest and clue us in on the various personalities and the tensions simmering beneath the comic surface. Tom succeeds in maneuvering Jane who hates games into being "it " in a variation of Charades. But the game and Marrell's matchmaking are complicated by the fact that Jane isn't the only one whose life needs a pick-me-up.
Marrell and Tom's baby has yet to establish a proper sleep pattern and the other demands of parenthood have resulted in unexpressed resentments, lack of sex and other frustrations in the marriage. Marrell's urging Jane to sleep with Jean-Pierre because he's "someone who should not be left unslept with" is not just prompted by good intentions for her friend but a way of sublimating her own attraction to the handsome doctor. Jean-Pierre's worthy and involved career, as well as his sex appeal, kicks up the gay Alan's own sense of failure about his inadequate romantic life and the shallowness of his career; the latter prompting his diatribe about people invariably asking you "what do you do?" ("the What do you do question is just a shortcut to the unspoken ranking system that's going on in all interpersonal situations at all times"). The playwright deftly provides a scene that illustrates Alan's career as Mnemonist who capitalizes on his good memory. While Alan has some of the funniest lines, his friends get their fair share of quotable tidbits.
The one issue at the core of this cauldron of midlife angst and pain that needs resolution for all, is to accept and live with Roy's death "50 years earlier than it should have happened"). It takes almost two hours of Miss Gibson's linguistic virtuosity and numerous scenes and location shifts for the confusion and acting out to evolve into understanding and acceptance— and it's left to the charming Jean-Pierre to pinpoint the difference between the this situation his new friends are upset about and the this situation that he deals with as part of his doctors without borders work.
Unlike sic and Suitcase which were staged at SoHoRep, a favorite with downtown theater goers, This introduces Melissa James Gibson to a broader audience at Playwrights Horizons' larger and considerably more comfortable Main Stage. Fortunately, the playwright has made the move uptown together with her SoHo Rep director Daniel Aukin and design team. Much of what makes This enjoyable to watch again owes a debt to their high energy, creative staging.
With a larger playing area to work with, Louisa Thompson has created a very detailed and versatile loft apartment that accommodates such varied locations as Marrell and Tom's home, a park, the hallway of Jane's apartment, a jazz club and a TV studio — all mostly by means of some moving panels and a portable door. With the help of Thompson's evocatively lit set (kudos to Mark Frey) and by having the actors move the props as needed, Mr. Aukin achieves the scene to scene shifts quite seamlessly and without time consuming blackouts.
Tickets are no longer a $15 for all as they were downtown. However, there are $15 and $20 rush. Even at full price, it's near but not on Broadway, so still not a break-the-bank theatrical outing.
Links to reviews of other plays by Melissa James Gibson (also directed by Daniel Aukin: