North Coast REP mines the heart and humanity in Melissa James Gibson’s candid examination of middle age
By Donnie Matsuda
Jane is lonely and vulnerable.
Tom and Marrell are unhappy in their marriage and overwhelmed and exhausted with the demands of their infant son.
Alan is ready to change his name, change his lifestyle, and change his career.
And Jean-Pierre is….well….French. And a doctor. Without borders.
And then there’s This, the witty and insightful play penned by playwright Melissa James Gibson, which unites all five of these utterly urbane thirtysomethings and follows them as they re-examine their lives, question the choices they’ve made along the way, and search for the sources of their present-day unhappiness. You could certainly call it a mish-mash of five mid-life crises and the play even describes their collective condition as “a sudden sense of urgency mixed with intense exhaustion,” but in the hands of its gifted Canadian playwright, This becomes much greater than the sum of all its delicate and dysfunctional parts.
Originally produced in 2009 at Playwrights Horizons in New York, This received mixed reviews following its Off-Broadway opening. Some critics accused the play of being too scattered in its fast-paced, fractured style of storytelling while others were disappointed with the lack of dimension in its somewhat overly stereotyped characters. While it is true that Gibson’s language is idiosyncratic and her cast tends to substitute pithy remarks for emotionally deep reactions, the play actually achieves a great deal of authenticity and affection in the capable hands of North Coast REP’s top notch creative team and stellar five member cast. Here, in its San Diego premiere, This tries incredibly hard (and mostly succeeds) in bringing the delicate state of middle age to the forefront of our collective consciousness.
With razor sharp wit and intellectual insight, Gibson has crafted a quirky quintet of self-absorbed urban discontents. We watch with equal parts pity and glee as four of the five contemporary New Yorkers grapple with their feelings and faults as middle age looms on the horizon. First, there’s Jane (a thoroughly natural and heartfelt Courtney Corey). She’s an emotionally complex character who hides her grief at her husband’s untimely death and has subsequently neglected herself, her career (“I’m an aMAZing standardized test proctor”), and her 10 year old daughter. Meanwhile, Tom and Marrell’s (a laid back Richard Baird balanced by a nagging Judith Scott) marriage is very clearly on the rocks as they constantly bicker about not getting enough sleep, not getting enough sex, and desperately wanting to see - and sleep with - other people. And then there is Alan (a delightfully droll Andrew Ableson), who fits the classic stereotype of the bitchy, flamboyant gay Jew. As he describes one of his many predicaments to his dear friend Jane, “Not a laughing matter Jane. Outfits are important when you can’t rely on other things. I mean you’re lucky You still have two or three years left when you can attract people By Looks Alone. Whereas I’m not that fortunate…I’ve always had to reel them in with my humor and intellect that together work to obscure my physical shortcomings and it’s Completely Exhausting.”
And last but certainly not least there is the debonair French Doctor without Borders, Jean-Pierre (a slick and suave Matt Thompson) who grounds the piece with his fetching accent and his visions for improving the life and health of Africans though nonviolent humanitarian missions. Interestingly, and probably intentionally, his global concerns put the petty mid-life quibbles of the other four into perspective. As we see him through the eyes of others (Marrell lusts “Someone should have sex with him I mean he’s Someone Who Should Be Slept With I mean he Should Not Be Left Unslept With” and Alan quips “He can’t be a Doctor Without Borders Without A Television. It’s too goddamned much.”), we soon realize that he’s in a different mindset - and not just working on a different continent - than the rest of the Upper West Side gang.
Through it all, director Kirsten Brandt has her finger firmly on the eclectic pulse of Gibson’s choppy writing and pushes the fragmented dialogue forward at a comfortable pace. She keenly balances the poetic puns (is their water filter a Britta or a Breeta?) with the more serious back-and-forth banter so that they weave together seamlessly to effect some compelling and comedic, yet ultimately confounding, truths.
The sleek and sophisticated set by Marty Burnett is not only impressive with its spinning turntable and multifunctional furniture, but it is also an accurate replica of a fully furnished New York apartment. Add to that Matt Novotny’s complex lighting grid, which shifts dramatically from bright group scenes to dimly-lit performance sequences, Alina Bokovikova’s trendy costumes, and Paul Peterson’s slick sound design, and you have the perfect backdrop for this contemporary, cutting comedy.
While we never get to the bottom of This – what the enigmatic title of the play refers to – it doesn’t really matter. That’s because This is about the very indefinable and indescribable experience of life itself and hence, it means something different to each one of us. Regardless of our life trajectory, our profession, or our age, we can all consider it an important wake up call to examine where we stand, what’s truly important to us, and how we plan to forge ahead through the hilarious and heartfelt game that we call "life."
Things to know before you go: This plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre through April 29, 2012. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm. Tickets are $32-$49 with discounts available for students and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit www.northcoastrep.org.