nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 30, 2009
Melissa James Gibson's This is a breath of fresh air in a Broadway/off-Broadway season sorely in need of one. It feels like a wakeup call: with its grown-up optimism, it heralds a new cultural moment to replace our decade-long wallow in self-pity and anomie. Bravo to Playwrights Horizons for bringing Gibson and her frequent collaborators director Daniel Aukin and set designer Louisa Thompson to their mainstage. They are offering us a marvelous gift: a new play that's funny, hopeful, intelligent, and challenging in more ways than one.
This is about a group of four longtime friends, all nearing (in?) middle age. Jane is a recent widow with a nine-year-old daughter; she still keeps her late husband's ashes on the refrigerator because she can't (or won't) find a more permanent resting place for him. Jane's a poet who works as a standardized test proctor, yet her friends view the fact that she actually got a book of poetry published as a sign of her career success.
Marrell and Tom are married and have just had their first child, a little boy named Henry who, it seems, never sleeps for more than 15 minutes at a time. Both confide in Jane their dissatisfaction with their marriage. Tom surprises Jane by revealing he's infatuated, maybe in love, with her.
Alan, single and gay, is, apparently a professional mnemonist (i.e., someone who makes money exhibiting his ability to remember things with extraordinary accuracy). He is desperate to find a different job, something that will be of more use to people.
Jane and Marrell and Tom and Alan are badly stuck, and not merely in the sense that they aren't leading the lives they wish to or having the careers they dreamed of. The bigger problem for all of them is their inability to see a way out of the rut they've gotten into. They don't want to be passive victims of fate or circumstance but they're having trouble figuring out how not to be: how to be something else, something more. I know just how they feel: they are America.
There is a fifth character in This, and he is a prime catalyst for the changes that Jane, Marrell, Tom, and Alan may finally find themselves able to effect. He's a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre, someone Marrell has brought into their tight circle. She is obviously infatuated with him herself, though she is trying to fix him up with Jane. Jean-Pierre is a "doctor without borders," which draws cynical derision from this group but also very real admiration. He's a wonderful character, as drawn by Gibson and portrayed plainly yet enigmatically by Louis Cancelmi—full of surprises, and the shot in the arm that this play, and these people, require.
I don't want to give away too much of the deftly plotted story of This, but instead want to tell you that Gibson has created wholly believable characters who resemble the superficial passive/aggressive types that populate so much contemporary drama but then surpass them by being fallible, tolerant, loving, and accountable for their actions. I liked and was convinced of the humanity of each. The four friends are portrayed by Julianne Nicholson (Jane), Eisa Davis (Marrell), Darren Pettie (Tom), and Glenn Fitzgerald (Alan), in performances that feel close to flawless; my one quibble is that I would have liked not to have been able to so easily guess Alan's sexual orientation until it was explicitly mentioned.
Daniel Aukin's staging is magnificent—fluid, wise, and resourceful, so that the play's events flow organically, even the transitions between scenes that pull us away in a manner that's bracing and refreshing rather than distracting or distancing. Louisa Thompson's set is thrilling, presenting literally all of the play's locations simultaneously, so that it looks like no place and every place when we first look at it. As the play moves forward and the characters head toward clarity, the clutter on the stage is progressively resolved into something approaching order, providing a wonderful visual metaphor for the transformations we're witnessing.
There's a deeply-felt respect for human life in This, though some will perhaps feel (wrongly, in my opinion) that the many jokes about Jane's husband's ashes belie that idea. For me, those jokes are part of it: this is a play with awe in it, and we don't get that very much nowadays. In the play's most important moment, Jean-Pierre puts the whole world in perspective in a few well-chosen words; we don't get that very much nowadays, either. This is a play to cherish, and I wish it long life at and/or beyond Playwrights Horizons.