Let’s just acknowledge that This is an awfully unspecific title for a play that’s so exceedingly, endlessly, entertainingly specific about the feelings and failings of its characters. But then writer Melissa James Gibson likes to have it both ways—almost as much as she likes the language she’s so constantly toying with.
Gibson likes, I mean, to give a character a long Kushner-play speech that maps out her worries relative to an unsettled present, to a past shared with his listeners, to some perfect imagined future—and to ask us to believe that those listeners would listen that long without interrupting. Or at least harrumphing.
But Gibson also, puckish author, likes to point out the preposterousness of those very speeches with a scene that comments precisely on the awkward, halting banalities of our desultory everyday conversation. Umms and ahhs and other quotidian speech markers are fine for dull pleasantries, and maybe for Mamet, she’s saying. Actual ideas are worth parsing and metering and bantering about, in the manner of Stoppard and Sondheim. (And Shaw and Shakespeare, and so on.)
In This, those ideas erupt from and dart about a lopsided foursome of longtime friends—a married couple (Todd Scofield and Felicia Curry), their widowed best friend (Lise Bruneau), and the mordantly witty gay man—how original!—who dances attendance upon them all, cocktail constantly in hand.
Michael Glenn plays that last device, I mean character, and his performance is sly and endearing enough that it’s almost churlish to grouse that Alan, who at one point contemplates adding an L to his name to make himself seem more interesting, quite literally has no life of his own. He’s a mnemonicist; his entire career, and at one point his only function in the larger saga of his friends’ lives, subsists in his ability to remember precisely who said what when. You will argue that Gibson means this emptiness, this aimlessness, this rote reflexive mere-being, itself to be the drama that defines Alan’s character, and you will not be wrong; as noted, she likes having it both ways, and is clever enough, damn her eyes, to get it most of the time. But still: harrumph.
A fifth character—a French physician sans frontieres in more ways than one—is introduced, ostensibly as a potential new distraction for Bruneau’s Jane, who’s approaching the first anniversary of her husband’s death, and functionally for the purpose of allowing most, if not all, of the characters to measure themselves against a romanticized Other. Will Gartshore inhabits this attractive, amusing cipher of an authorial notion with a kind of impatient panache, with a demonstrable appetite for the Grade A punch lines Gibson gives him, and without at all seeming to mind the long nap he’s getting paid to take, center stage, toward the end of the play.
As for that central threesome: Well, an infant has arrived for Tom (Scofield) and Marrell (Curry), whose marital routine has been duly disrupted thereby, and between that upheaval and some long-brewing longings, one of them will stray. With one of their old friends. While the other entertains lurid notions about that beguiling Frenchman. (No one said a self-consciously wordy play about existential crises among the upper-middle had to be dull.)
This three-way betrayal—of spouse, of friendship, of self—will occur early enough that it’s no spoiler to mention it here; if This is in part about unpacking how its characters got to their overlapping crisis points, it’s also about offering them the space to work out how to navigate life after the collisions at that blind(side) intersection. A game kicks off the shenanigans—a storytelling game, only there’s no actual story, only the expectation of one, meaning the person who’s “It” will basically imagine a life out loud. In living rooms and hallways and TV studios and supper clubs, Gibson’s characters will unearth the distresses and dissatisfactions of their present circumstances and contemplate the chances—and the costs—of changing them up. Alan will be there to remind everyone of some of their shared past’s particulars, and Jane will get a chance to finally process what it means to be a 30-something widow. And Jean-Pierre? He’ll weigh in, with a flourish worthy of any exasperated Gaul, on exactly how high the stakes in all this domestic drama really are.
A few words on things not precisely germane to the play: The character of Marrell is a jazz singer—did I mention that questions of race and tribe and culturally rooted expression, appropriated and otherwise, will be raised, bounced about like beach balls, and thwacked playfully away? In addition to everything else? All in under 90 minutes?—and though Felicia Curry has turned in plenty of powerhouse musical performances hereabouts, I’ve never seen her do the sort of intensely intimate work she does here. She’s using her upper register more gently, and her lower register more sensually, than I’ve ever heard, and it’s frankly ravishing.
Then there’s the set, an interlocking-circles contraption that might as well have James Kronzer’s signature actually scribbled across it. The designer and the Round House audience enjoy these turntable-y thingies so very much that it’s become a bit of a house hobbyhorse. (Not that you can blame them, really; it is kind of cool to watch.) So it’s nice that at one point, the contrariwise rotation of two platters serves to punctuate a scene’s conclusion with an in-motion picture that offers a melancholy counterpoint to what’s just transpired between two people trying to reconnect.
Ryan Rilette, the newish head honcho at the long-aimless Round House, steers This efficiently, intelligently, and mostly with a light touch; the one or two forced moments at Sunday’s matinee may have had more to do with an oddly uneven spectrum of audience response, which could easily have put his cast off stride, than with any directorial overemphasis. What I like most about Rilette’s involvement with this antic hay of a play is simply that he’s involved with it, period; Gibson’s lively, witty, unpretentiously intellectual drama is exactly the sort of thing that’ll get me to Bethesda more often.