Review: THIS

by Lynn on March 31, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs. Written by Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Matthew Jocelyn. Designed by Astrid Janson. Lighting by Jason Hand. Sound by Richard Feren. Original music by Peter Eldridge. Starring: Laura Condlln, Christian Laurin, Yanna McIntosh, Alon Nashman and Jonathan Young.

Produced by Canadian Stage. Plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre until April 13.

In Melissa James Gibson’s play entitled THIS, almost all of the 40-something characters are stuck. Jane is stuck in her grief. A year before her husband Roy died of cancer. Jane has been floundering in her life and her work—she is a minor poet and teacher of poetry at a university. She is listless and can’t move forward even when her young daughter Maude is concerned.

Marrell and Tom are stuck both in their marriage and parenthood. Intimacy is rare, even though they are parents of an infant. They are held captive by their baby who can’t seem to sleep more than fifteen minutes at a time. Marrell is a jazz singer. Her husband Tom is an artist of sorts, working as a horticulturalist and creating art from discarded materials. Marrell suggests that Tom starts many projects and doesn’t finish any of them.

Alan has been a friend of Jane, Marrell and Tom since their college days. Now he makes his living as a television personality because of his uncanny memory and his ability to remember even the most minute of details. He is unhappy, an alcoholic and gay.

Marrell, Tom and Alan try to take Jane’s preoccupied mind off her grieving, invite her over for an evening and also invite Jean-Pierre a Frenchman living in New York (where the play is set) as a set up with Jane. Jean-Pierre is a doctor working with Doctors Without Borders.

The play opens with a game. The premise is that one of them leaves the room so the others can prepare a story. When the person is allowed back in the room the person must learn the story by asking various questions of the others. Jane is chosen to leave the room in spite of her protests that she absolutely hates games. The reality in this case is that there is no story and that by her questions Jane will create her own story. Unbeknownst to her as well, is that depending on whether her question ends in a vowel, a consonant or the letter ‘y’ will result in the answers from the group being ‘yes’ ‘no’ or ‘maybe’.

In their zeal to cheer Jane up, her good friends don’t seem to take her feelings, likes, dislikes and other obvious aspects of her life, into consideration. Things are revealed. Tom has been in love with Jane since their university days and never told her. Perhaps because of her vulnerability she succumbs to his urgings and for a brief moment they let passion erupt. Guilt of course follows. Marrell wouldn’t mind sleeping with Jean-Pierre herself. Either would Alan who is downright cloying at the party.

I had problems with the play because something kept getting in the way of the story and the characters. This ‘interruption was annoying like a distracting fruit fly that buzzes around your head, taking your focus away from what you are trying to concentrate on. In this case what I was trying to do was concentrate on the story; the reasons for all this angst etc.

What was so distracting? It was the playwright. Melissa James Gibson is too clever by half. She loves language and often is dazzling in her use of it—the language for Alan is particularly sharp. But then Gibson can’t seem to resist going overboard with her cleverness and by doing that she upstages her characters; pulls the rug from under them.

The story game is a case in point. The audience spends more time listening to hear if the question asked ends in a vowel, consonant or ‘Y’ and then the joke of the “yes”, “no” or “maybe” answer, than it does to anything of meaning being said. Do we actually notice Jane’s total frustration?

Later in the play when emotions are high and truths are revealed, both Tom and Marrell rehash a fight they had a year before. Alan steps in with his sharp memory and to offer that while Tom and Marrell’s recollections are polite, his memory of what happened involved one character telling the other to “F__ck Off..and die.” Lots of laughs, but little point. How does this serve the characters? It doesn’t. It’s all so much wheel-spinning.

I found that often these supposed great friends don’t listen to each other. They talk around them. There is a lot of quipping. Lots of hearing just one word and playing off that rather than characters listening for the whole thought and responding to that. How can you not know that one of your friends, who you’ve known for years, hates games. If the characters aren’t paying attention to each other, then why should we?

THIS is not all smarmy-clever. There is a wonderful scene in which Marrell senses that something is troubling Jane. Little does she know that it’s Jane’s single fling with Tom that’s causing her unease. It’s subtle, nuanced in its dialogue and shows a perception between these women that’s all too infrequent in the rest of the play. It does show that Gilbert can suppress her need to upstage in favour of serving her characters. And in a head shaking moment, Jean-Pierre seems to have summed up the goings on of the four characters when he says that a report he will deliver to a Doctors Without Border convention is important. What those four are going through is piffle. Dripping irony, that.

For all of my difficulty with this annoying play, the production is exquisite. Director Matthew Jocelyn and his wonderful designer Astrid Janson have stripped the Berkeley Street Theatre down to its basics. The back brick wall reveals previously boarded up windows that face onto the street. The floor is stripped down as well. Seating wraps around the sides of the stage. The space is opened up. The lighting is up so that we in the audience and those on the stage are equally visible. Sometimes characters will sit in the audience watching the play. Is this idea to strip the set to its basics because they feel the play strips bare the emotions of the characters? Beats me, but the look of the show works a treat.

The acting is very fine. As Jane, Laura Condlln is on a roll. She was gut wrenching in a recent Necessary Angel production of 4:48 Psychosis. And in THIS she is just as emotionally taut. Jane is floundering on a sea of grief one year after her husband died. She cannot get a grip. In a wonderful touch Condlln wears miss-matched socks; we see one white one peeking up from one boot and one grey one peeking up from the other.

When she succumbs to Tom’s advances and confession of attraction, their clutching is desperate, passionate and hungry. The embrace and release of emotions leaves Jane breathless and unsettled. That scene alone is worth the price of admission. Matthew Jocelyn has directed it with such sensitivity and clarity. It’s full of passion and guilt and it’s terrific.

As Marrell, Yanna McIntosh is confident and forthright. She is also combative with her husband Tom. With Jane she is the truly concerned friend. She knows something is wrong and Marrell is determined to find out what it is. There is a lovely scene when she and Jane are eating ice cream cones. McIntosh is watchful and nuanced. And her licking the cone speaks volumes about subtext.

Alon Nashman plays Alan with such wonderful subtlety that he always has you guessing. The body language is not overt and creeps up on you gradually. He is an actor who keeps the audience guessing, who reveals his character’s secrets slowly.

As Tom, Jonathan Young seems a touch lightweight for the character. But his emotionally charged scene with Jane Condlln when Tom professes his affection is impressive. And finally As Jean-Pierre, Christian Laurin is dashing, strapping, and contends with these silly people until he can go back to Africa for some real engagement.

The play of THIS left me cold, but the production produced by Canadian Stage works a treat.

THIS plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until April 13.

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