From left, Gilles Marini, Darren Pettie, Glenn Fitzgerald, Eisa Davis, and Saffron Burrows in “This”
Photo by Craig Schwartz
By Melissa James Gibson
Directed by Daniel Aukin
With Saffron Burrows, Eisa Davis, Glenn Fitzgerald, Gilles Marini, and Darren Pettie
Kirk Douglas Theatre, Los Angeles
Through Aug. 28, 2011
(See opening-night video clip below.)
“This” … now what kind of a title is that? Does it presage an Abbott and Costello remake? “Who’s on First” certainly achieved immortality for its love of wordplay based on the most common terms. “This” is nothing if not a celebration of language crisply delivered, but with substance unlike the classic by Abbott and Costello. Playwright Melissa James Gibson has a unique writing style. She writes dialogue without capitalization or punctuation, not unlike Archy, the free-verse–writing cockroach. Like Don Marquis, Archy and Mehitabel’s creator, when he was commenting on their actions, her stage direction is fully punctuated. In the very informative interview printed in the program she says, “The play on the page is a blueprint and playwrights are always searching for the best ways to communicate the spirit of the thing to the artists that will realize it in three dimensions.” Director Daniel Aukin is her longtime interpreter and their combined style leads to crisp, imaginative, but plausible dialogue.
Jane (Saffron Burrows), Marrell (Eisa Davis), Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), and Tom (Darren Pettie) are friends from college, now in their late 30s. If this sounds like part of a treatment for a sitcom, Gibson neatly avoids the pitfall, bringing to light the reality of talented people facing middle age and everyday life with humor and intelligence intact, but hopes and fantasies badly bruised. Reality is tough.
Jane is a shell-shocked poet whose husband died a year ago and whose last publication was a book she wrote 12 years ago. Marrell and Tom are her married friends with a newborn baby who sleeps only in 15-minute segments. Despite their exhaustion, they are giving an informal dinner party in the hopes of introducing Jane to Jean-Pierre (Gilles Marini), the handsome French doctor (without borders) who has repeatedly come to hear jazz singer Marrell at a club.
Sleep-deprived Marrell is herself obviously attracted to Jean-Pierre, and her annoyance with husband Tom, the struggling woodworker, is overarching. It is typically easier to ascribe great meaning to the trivial than to deal with the big issues in a marriage. In the case of Marrell and Tom, filling the Brita, or not, has taken on monumental importance. Intellectualization becomes the tool of the educated, so their conflict is expressed in terms of avoiding contamination of the filter. In an interview, playwright Gibson says of her own marriage, “…we don’t own a dishwasher anymore, which is a good thing—when we did have one, my husband’s and my marriage barely survived our opposing philosophies of loading.” How she frames Marrell and Tom’s friction over the Brita has the same tone she brings to the “…opposing philosophies of loading.” It resonates with typical theater-going audience, but might not fly so well in the average sitcom. Her use of language raises everyday issues above the formulaic.
Alan is the caustic gay friend who has the blessing, or the curse, of being a mnemonist; he has flawless recall of every conversation he has ever been a part of. It is a good party trick, a tool to get himself on stage and TV, but oh can it be devastating socially. To these old friends a turn of a phrase or the precise meaning is everything. Alan sums himself up, “the better part of my life I spend waiting for a wake-up call.” Jane, the poet, is precise to the point of being too literal for her own good.
In an attempt to get Jane out of her despair, the friends devise a game where she, with yes-and-no questions, is to guess a story they make up while she is out of the room. Only they do not make up a story, they arbitrarily decide to answer her questions ending in a consonant with “yes,” those ending with a vowel, are “no,” and a y rates a “maybe.” Think Twenty Questions without a correct answer. The story she constructs following these rules leads back to her and she flees home to her 9-year-old daughter. The fix-up with Jean-Pierre is a fizzle.
Louisa Thompson’s information-filled set creates a desire to know these people before an actor steps out onstage. It is a tasteful but cramped apartment: books artfully piled to the ceiling, a few baby toys scattered about, there is no mistaking the fact that these are busy but potentially interesting folks. The clever movement of scrims, and a front door that gets wheeled out when another location is indicated are very effective. To establish that Marrell is indeed a jazz singer some shrewd shifting of lights and furniture and Eisa Davis is sitting at a grand piano. The audience is treated to a delightful interlude at her club … the songs, of course are not without meaning.
So what is “This” really about? Well, it is about the this and the that that make up daily life. It is not Seinfeld’s talk about “nothing.” But it also is not the “foreign film” they probably dreamt their lives would be when they were in college. Is the dialogue always free flowing? No there are fits and starts … as in real conversation. There are the big themes like achievements not realized, adultery, the reality of the mixed blessing when a baby finally arrives, but the big themes are not nearly as important as the quotidian. Might some scenes have been tightened? Yes, particularly toward the final curtain, but overall Gibson has fashioned an original, entertaining and thoughtful piece of theater.