Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What's This?

Written by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Starring Louis Cancelmi, Eisa Davis, Glenn Fitzgerald, Julianne Nicholson, Daniel Pettie

Performances November 6-December 13, 2009
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Melissa James Gibson’s This concerns widowhood and guilt, adultery and guilt, motherhood and guilt, friendship and guilt—so why isn’t it called Guilt? The answer is probably because the playwright is more concerned with words and word games than her characters. There’s a lot of talk about “this” or “that”—an affair, a betrayal, a death—but by the time This arrives at its sappy, soap-operaish conclusion after two intermissionless hours, Gibson hasn’t made any of her five characters sympathetic or plausible.

There’s Jane, a teacher and published poet, who lost her husband Roy nearly a year ago, which left her alone with her nine-year-old daughter Maude. Her close friends from college comprise the married couple Marrell and Tom, who also have a barely-sleeping young son, as well as Alan, a single—and singularly unhappy—gay man. Finally, there’s a dashing Frenchman, Jean-Pierre, one of those globe-hopping Doctors without Borders, whom Marrell has recruited to date Jane.

Gibson’s use of language and the power of words are far from inspired. This is full of disconnected scenes that could easily be excised with no appreciable loss to the play. After she sleeps with Tom, Jane sits with Marrell on a park bench eating ice cream: Marrell discusses her uneasiness about her marriage, and Jane is understandably taken aback, trying not to make her guilt obvious. But the women’s conversation consists of so many repeated lines and silly phraseology like parsing whether something that was said is either a question or a statement that it becomes rather wearying to sit through.

Similarly, Gibson fleshes out her characters through songs (Marrell sings twice) and soliloquies (Alan shows off his talents in nmemology), but these interludes don’t feel organic; rather, they’ve been shoehorned in pad a less-than-profound play. Of course, Alan’s talent for memorizing everything comes in handy in the finale, when the couple’s bickering brings up a past argument, which Alan (who was luckily present) remembers all-too-clearly. It’s good for cheap laughs but little else.

The cast of five capable performers can’t breathe life into these stale characters, and director Daniel Aukin can’t separate the meager wheat from the plentiful chaff in Gibson’s writing. The best contribution undoubtedly comes from set designer Louis Thompson, who finds sundry ingenious ways of turning the basic unit set into several locales. Otherwise, This doesn’t have much of this or that.
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