There’s no question that playwright Melissa James Gibson has a way with words. Her one-act play This is a nonstop rush of them, some funny in a black-humor kind of way and many poignant, spoken by four friends and a hanger-on as they cope with death, infidelity, parenthood, and aimlessness. But a good play needs more than clever words, and Gibson is unable to create a coherent story arc or fully fleshed-out characters. At the play’s end we’re left wondering: What was that all about?
Jane, Alan, Marrell, and Marrell’s husband Tom have been friends since college, and now, approaching 40, must face the challenges of middle age. Each of them has their own special burden, which they overshare. Jane is dealing, or not, with the death of her husband a year earlier. Marrell and Tom’s marriage has hit a rough spot made worse by the birth of their baby, and Alan is tired of the “mnemonist” TV act where he shows off his tape-recorder memory of daily conversations. Into this mess of feelings wanders Jean-Pierre, a Doctors without Borders physician whose sole function is to bring a huge Gallic shrug to the complicated relationships playing out before him.
There’s no doubt those relationships are complicated. Jane and Tom, who have apparently fought off their attraction for years, finally give in at a moment of weakness. Marrell claims she wants to give Jane the space to mourn in her own way but can’t help offering advice. Jewish Alan chastises Waspy Jane for using Yiddish expressions — “It would be like me using the word ‘wainscoting,’ he claims — while Jean-Pierre subtly ingratiates himself with Marrell, later announcing he’s also attracted to Jane though not to the gay Alan despite being bisexual.
The premise of the play is that this is a tight-knit group navigating life’s challenges together, but it’s hard to believe they really care about each other. In the first scene, the group bullies Jane into playing a game where the joke is on her, with Tom putting on the greatest pressure. Is this the behavior of a good friend? Jane is clearly a wounded bird, and Tom’s insistence that she play is just mean-spirited. When Marrell insists that she and Tom “have it out” in front of their friends, does she have any awareness of the awkwardness she has created for Tom and the others? When Alan kvetches about his lack of direction in life, does he consider that it is unfair to ask his friends to solve his problem?
What these characters can do is throw a catchy turn of phrase at each other.
Musing on the common question “What do you do?” Alan says, “What you really mean is how much money do you make and do you make more money than I do and could you possibly be of use to me as I continue on my path of attempting to make more money?” Commenting on Jean-Pierre’s sexual appeal and her efforts to make a match between him and Jane, Marrell observes, “He’s somebody who should be slept with.” Later, Jane points out, “The wolf isn’t at the door, the wolf is the door.”
These pithy, offhand remarks are certainly entertaining. But by going for the one-liner, Gibson turns her characters into caricatures whose flair for language serves to distance us, rather than bring us closer. There’s a fine line between laughing with someone, which engenders sympathy or empathy, and at that person. Unfortunately, Gibson goes for the latter, which undermines our identification with her characters and their very plausible life struggles.
A larger problem with This is that it’s not obvious what point Gibson is trying to make. Except for the last scene, where Jane breaks through to her suppressed sense of loss, there is virtually no character development and no resolution to anyone’s situation. Marrell and Tom are the same at play’s end as they were at the beginning — and just as unhappy. Alan’s idea of following Jean-Pierre to Africa is no real solution, merely a verbalized fantasy that seems designed to provoke a reaction, and Jean-Pierre remains the perpetual fifth wheel.
Given the structural weaknesses of This, the cast does a credible job of making the characters come alive. Nick Garrison, who has the most rapid-fire dialogue as the disaffected Alan, manages to keep up reasonably well with the speed of his monologues, and Ryan Shams’ French accent is perfect, both in English and in a hilarious French phone call. Cheyenne Casebier plays the damaged Jane with gentleness and grace while April Yvette Thompson is an appropriately annoying, controlling Marrell. Hans Altwies’ henpecked husband, Tom, is the picture of restraint, making his indiscretion understandable while still reprehensible. Braden Abraham’s direction is tight, and L.B. Morse’s set works effectively as Marrell and Tom’s apartment, a nightclub, a TV studio, a park, and an apartment hallway.
If you go: This, through May 15 at Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Leo K. Theatre, 155 Mercer St. Tickets cost $30 to $52 ($12 for those 25 and under) and are available at the box office, by phone (206-443-2224 or 877-900-9285), or online.