Louis Cancelmi, Eisa Davis, Glenn Fitzgerald, Julianne Nicholson, Darren Pettie
What is This, you ask? If you think this review’s begun by taking a suspiciously existential turn, you’ll be pleased to know that This is the name of Melissa James Gibson’s new play, currently playing at Playwrights Horizons.
The play focuses on Jane (the beautiful, gawky Julianne Nicholson), a middle-aged mom whose husband Roy has been for about one year as the play begins. At a dinner party hosted by her friend Marrell and Marrell’s husband Tom, Jane is introduced to the charming Jean-Pierre, a Doctor Without Borders with whom Marrell aims to set her up by way of a tricky word game.
Once the party games have sufficiently tried Jane’s nerves, Tom approaches her with a confession. He’s in love with her and has been for a long time. Unable to resist and desperate for any measure of intimate attention, Jane enters into an affair with her best friend’s husband, straining the already-fragile bonds that tie their small band of friends together following Roy’s death.
Gibson’s play, comprised of a series of just-barely-out-of-the-ordinary observations about just-barely-out-of-the-ordinary people, fails to register as anything more than just barely out of the ordinary. As with a great deal of modern relationship-centric plays, few risks are taken, yielding few real rewards. An ending that comes about one scene later than it ought and a plot that’s somewhat too self-important for its own good impede this amiable play from ever taking flight.
Where This succeeds most is in testing the limits of language within the context of modern relationships. Gibson’s script, which in its written form is almost devoid of punctuation, stresses the subtle differences between questions and statements and challenges cliched phrases that have been integrated into our everyday vocabularies.
There’s a clever, well-observed quality to many of the characters’ exchanges, but there’s also a certain unfocused quality that comes as a result of Gibson’s inability to decide once and for all what final statement she wants her play to make. Is it about parenting? Adultery? Loss? All of the above? In the final moments of the play, each is examined in turn rather unsatisfactorily.
In terms of the play’s cast, the men can’t quite match the women. Julianne Nicholson shines as Jane, full of vulnerability and intellect in the face of great loss. And Eisa Davis, who gets a chance to flaunt her vocal chops as nightclub singer Marrell, proves her acting chops in one of her meatiest stage roles to date.
The role of Tom (Darren Pettie), on the other hand, is suspiciously underwritten, allowing for little character development despite the centrality of his illicit relationship with Jane. Louis Cancelmi as Jean-Pierre and Glenn Fitzgerald, who charms in the thankless role of Alan, the group’s token Jewish gay friend, are mostly neglected in favor of the womens’ perspective.
There’s much to like about This, which exhibits the depth of emotions of an episode of Friends but also contains a certain measure of we’ve-seen-it-before warmth. It’s the equivalent of theatrical comfort food – a morsel of easily-consumed dramatic fodder that goes down easy but leaves one begging for something more. This may not be all that, but it’s something.