Theater review: ‘This’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
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A quick survey of the intriguing loft apartment conjured by scenic designer Louisa Thompson tells you all you need to know about the characters of Melissa James Gibson’s marvelous play “This,” which opened Sunday under the direction of Daniel Aukin at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Filled with books, paintings, toys and remnants of a winding-down dinner party, the space quite obviously belongs to creative and highly literate parents who are far too steeped in the messiness of life to put on a show of perfect tidiness.
That messiness turns out to be the main subject of Gibson’s highly Chekhovian drama — it’s the “this” of her slightly annoying but apt title. The playwright’s manner might be quirky in a 21st century fashion that relishes language games and can bear realism only if it’s allowed maximum fluidity, but her vision bears striking similarities to her Russian predecessor, who wanted to capture the experience of human transience, the consciousness of time passing as life assembles itself in ways that are rarely in accord with our dreams and expectations.
The characters of “This” have just crossed the threshold into middle age, all of them approaching 40 or already over the line and wondering about the road ahead, its length, direction and ultimate purpose. Marrell (Eisa Davis), a jazz singer, and Tom (Darren Pettie), a woodworker, the occupants of this urban home, are an interracial couple going through a rough patch in their marriage after having their first baby. They’re acutely sleep deprived and chronically annoyed with each other for such domestic misdemeanors as not keeping the water pitcher filled to the Brita filter line.
The occasion for their relaxed soiree is to introduce their old friend Jane (Saffron Burrows) to Jean-Pierre (Gilles Marini), a sexy Frenchman involved with Doctors Without Borders, a name that provokes all kinds of lightly libidinous wordplay from the infatuated group. Jane, a beautiful poet who’s as self-effacing as she is verbally exact, is still getting over the death of her husband. She’s less excited about the prospect of a dalliance with this hunky humanitarian physician than Marrell appears to be. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), Marrell and Jane’s gay buddy from college, cuts through the tension with wisecracks and non sequiturs that suggest someone should cork that bottle of wine he’s been compulsively fondling.
As with Chekhov’s plays, the plotting of “This” is less conspicuous than its perceptiveness. The incident around which the play revolves happens the day after the party, when Tom unexpectedly drops by Jane’s apartment and confesses that she has invaded his mind. The two succumb to the feverish sexual moment, and guilt — the corrosive kind that afflicts decent people after they’ve made an uncorrectable mistake — ensues.
But don’t expect the neat story arc of a well-crafted adultery-themed screenplay. “This” is in many ways a more conventional drama than Gibson’s previous work — the Obie-winning “[sic]” is an oblique little wonder — but it’s the type of piece that was made purely for the stage.
A chunk of the first scene is devoted to an adult game, in which Jane is duped trying to guess a secret story, and throughout the play are bouts of linguistic horseplay testing how far words will bend before breaking. The characters even perform for us. Marrell sings at a club (allowing the extraordinarily multitalented Davis to exercise her musical gifts) and Alan, a mnemonist, goes on a talk show to display his unbelievable memory (a talent that Gibson humorously employs later on in an emotionally charged scene).
The work isn’t without flaws. The style can get precious at times, as when Gibson has Jane ask Alan why he’s sitting in “the almost dark,” presumably to indicate the character’s poetic precision. Alan’s avalanche riffs (though entertainingly delivered by Fitzgerald) have a whiff of gay motormouth theatrical stereotyping. And the play’s conclusion singles out Jane as the protagonist in what had struck me all along as an ensemble piece. (Imagine Chekhov choosing to end “The Cherry Orchard” with a monologue by Ranevskaya.)
But the pleasures of “This” more than outweigh these quibbles. The work abounds in wit, cleverness and surprise. How can you not smile at Marrell’s taxonomy of unhappiness, broken down into “personal, marital, professional, existential and interdisciplinary” subgroups? And how infinitely charming of Alan to share with us, apropos of nothing, that he’s “thinking of adding a second L” to his name.
It’s uncategorizable moments like these that give “This” its unique texture. But lest I give the impression that the play is all loopy frivolity, let me remind everyone that Gibson is grappling with those intimations of mortality that lie behind the clichéd yet cursedly inescapable midlife crisis. The work’s comic ping emanates from a scary psychological place — one of the reasons it’s so amusing. Loss haunts the action, and when heartbreak hits in the play’s home stretch, it hits hard.
For the Los Angeles premiere, this Playwrights Horizons production, which I first encountered in New York in 2009, has recast the roles of Jane and Jean-Pierre with Burrows and Marini. Burrows has the tougher challenge of the two newcomers, but she sails through admirably, seeming as comfortable in her character’s skin as Davis, Fitzgerald and Pettie seem in their portrayals. Marini adopts a subdued theatrical presence that handsomely fills the bill but could be strategically amped up. (Lines of Jean-Pierre’s that were hilarious off-Broadway seem lackadaisically wry here.)
It’s most satisfying to report that the collaborative chemistry between Gibson and Aukin, her go-to director, has deepened over the years. Their innovative style now seems enriched with a greater emotional maturity, which is at least some compensation for the humiliating torment of getting older.
‘This,’ Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (Call for exceptions). Ends Aug. 28. $20-$45. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with no intermission)