Human interaction is a complex, intuitional, frequently absurd jumble of conversation, innuendo, and the unspoken. At the same time, it's broadly predictable: people we know well will seldom surprise us, so that it's memorable when they do.
Dealing with this dual nature of communication is a major challenge for a playwright who wishes to craft realistic dialogue. Generally such a writer wants to dramatize important events in the lives of her characters, while at the same time making the minutiae of their interactions convincingly real. She must accomplish all this with characters known only to her, since we the audience have just met them; without the benefit of the elevated, concentrated language of poetry; and yet in a short period of time. Melissa James Gibson, author of the award-winning [sic], meets this essential challenge of tone, pace, and content nearly perfectly in her new play THIS.
The story skeleton is pretty standard: four friends in their late 30s, three straight and one gay, deal with major life events, catalyzed by infidelity and an exotic new acquaintance. The glory is in the details. Jane's (Julianne Nicholson) husband died a year ago, leaving her with a school-age daughter. Her friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), a brand-new mom herself, has in mind to break Jane out of her widowy slump by introducing her to handsome Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a French "Doctor Without Borders."
Meanwhile Marrell's marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie), already troubled, has grown shakier and sexless with the arrival of their new baby. After a party in which a parlor game goes hilariously, frightfully wrong, Tom reveals longstanding feelings for Jane in a brilliantly composed and delivered speech. The "real" game is afoot.
Gibson plays games with our expectations throughout. The rules of the parlor game – so the friends tell Jane, who doesn't like games – are simple, but she objects: "You make them sound simple, which means they're not." That seems a suitable watchword for life, and certainly for this realistically messy tale. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the gay, single friend whose sexual orientation is the one aspect of his character that isn't "otherizing." (The "annoying" gay friend is hardly the sitcom stereotype.) Alan (with his "dormant Judaism"), Tom, and Jane are white, while Marrell is black, but race comes up only in unexpected yet biting bits.
Everyone has some otherness to submerge or nurse. The four friends met in college, but Tom, the one who works with his hands, was an employee there, not a student. When Marrell confesses to Jane her marital unhappiness, she mentions the lack of sex, but also that "Tom stopped voting… I don't know him anymore." That sort of loose bit of information, like Jean-Pierre's funny phone call scene, doesn't really go anywhere or even make perfect sense, but reveals character while touching on the layer of absurdity that's a part of everything we do to and with one another.
Thanks to Alan's gift of perfect recall, we have a mechanism for seeing through the veils of interpretation different characters pull over the same events. One small imperfection is the self-consciousness of the scene in which we see Alan performing his mnemonic act, introducing us to this important plot point. But creating a character with this ability was an inspired twist.
A sixth character is Louisa Thompson's vast, jumbled set, which in its fullness represents Tom and Marrell's homey loft apartment. Overhung with a huge skylight panel, its large size, lived-in clutter, and two levels echo the complexity of the lives Gibson splatters before us. It's telling that the whole thing fades away (Matt Frey's lighting is very effective) for a sparkling closing scene in which Jane, having at last shaken off some of her burden of grief, addresses her sleeping child in the latter's bedroom. Despite its broad canvas the play is full of such moments: the lonely rattling sound emanating from a wooden bowl cum baptismal font after Marrell learns she's been cheated on; Tom placing the baby monitor on Marrell's piano and returning grimly to his cabinetmaking; Alan helping Jane on with the coat whose broken zipper she hasn't bothered to fix; Jane's sad, broken metaphor, "the wolf is never away from the door, the wolf is the door."
Daniel Aukin, who also directed [sic], does beautiful work here with his superb cast. I'm a firm believer that if you don't notice the direction, the director has done a good job, and just about every scene here feels natural, though powerfully staged at appropriate moments.
THIS continues at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 13. Order by Nov. 25 with the code THGR to get tickets for only $50 (reg. $65). To order, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, open daily noon-8:00 pm.
Photo by Joan Marcus.