Megan Follows stars in This, at the Vancouver Playhouse until January 29.
I had been looking forward to seeing the Vancouver Playhouse production of Melissa James Gibson's This for two main reasons. First, Charles Isherwood gave the play a rave review in the New York Times when it opened Off-Broadway in 2009. I very much admire Isherwood's critical judgment, and his tastes and sensibilities mirror my own much more closely than those of his colleague, Ben Brantley (who, for example, absolutely loved Brief Encounter). Second, the Vancouver production of This was to star Megan Follows, who had impressed me to no end in Toronto last February in a revival of Cloud 9. Having seen the play last night, I can now say that on the first count--Isherwood's lauding of the playscript--I have some major caveats. However, on the second--the lead performance in this production--I was thoroughly impressed. Follows is a knock-out as Jane.
James Gibson, daughter of former BC Liberal Party leader Gordon Gibson, is a local girl who has made good in New York, racking up impressive playwriting credits ([sic]; Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance; Current Nobody) and even more impressive reviews. And This is very much a New York play, focused as it is on four intelligent, witty, arty, and navel-gazing upper middle-class thirtysomething friends struggling to name the exact source of their middle-aged malaise and malcontent. To be sure, in Jane's case there is a fairly clear cause: the premature death of her husband a year before. She just won't own up to the full immensity of her grief, and her increasing difficulties communicating with her daughter and stoic refusal to remove her dead husband's ashes from the top of her fridge are symptoms of her stasis (and rather textbook Freudian) melancholia. Tom (Todd Thomson) and Marrell (Karen Holness) are exhausted new parents whose difficulty adjusting to their altered lifestyle mask deeper faultlines in their relationship. And, finally, Alan (a wonderfully wry Dmitry Chepovetsky), is the requisite self-deprecating, borderline alchoholic gay sidekick in this self-obsessed quartet, no one's "dear friend" as he likes to point out, but everyone's default confessor, if only by virtue of his burdensome talent for remembering everything he hears or is told. Indeed, he is a professional mnemonist by trade. Who knew there was such a thing? Kudos, however, to James Gibson for not just making this a schtick and reducing Alan to complete caricature; Alan's powers of recall do in fact form a key component of the plot's climax.
Into this menage comes Jean-Pierre (Fabrice Grover), a globe-trotting physician with Doctors Without Borders whom Marrell meets at the jazz club where she performs and invites to the play's opening dinner party as a possible match for Jane. Jean-Pierre is clearly meant to show up the triteness and pettiness--the "dinkiness," to borrow and adapt a phrase from Alan--of these four friends' personal burdens of angst and betrayal in light of the urgent life and death concerns he daily deals with. And yet, as a character, Jean-Pierre largely remains a cipher; we never learn what exactly he does with DWB (nor what the "pre-conference" he has to rush off to is all about) and only overhear one telephone conversation he has in French with an apparent colleague, whom he repeatedly tells to "parler à Bob." It is hard for us to condemn the shallowness of these New Yorkers' lives through Jean-Pierre when he himself remains so shallowly drawn and, as such, he remains mostly a mute (albeit exotically so) screen on and through which the other characters project their own anxieties and desires. And, it would seem, the bisexual Jean-Pierre is willing to accommodate all takers.
Indeed, the real drama of the play has nothing to do with Jean-Pierre at all; instead, it centers on Tom and Jane's fateful one-night stand after the opening dinner party, and the consequent guilt Jane feels towards Marrell and, latterly, the memory of her dead husband. This question of Jane's double betrayal is really at the heart of the play, and leads to its high-stakes climax, in which Jane both reveals to her best friend that she has slept with Tom and to herself that she still misses her own husband. Interestingly, she can only do the latter after she disabuses the assembled audience about her marriage being perfect; it just seemed that way because her husband had the misfortune to die young. Which in turn accounts for her fortune (if it can be called that) in hereafter being granted some sort of nobility she didn't in fact earn. It's a powerful scene, full of some of James Gibson's best (because most honest) writing, and allowing Follows a bravura moment of primal acting, going back to drama's ritual beginnings in her smearing of her face with her dead husband's ashes.
In the pre-show publicity on the Playhouse production, James Gibson has said in various press interviews that with This she started out wanting to write a play about adultery, but that she ended up writing something else. She doesn't exactly say what that something else is, but I would suggest it's the process of grief and mourning (for a dead lover and the death of love in equal measure). Certainly these are the elements that provide the most heft for me in this play, and the most satisfying moments of performance. I just wish that James Gibson had been better able to connect her residual focus on the betrayal that accompanies adultery with her nascent exploration of the different kind of betrayal that's also involved in doing the work of mourning. That connection is certainly there, not least in the opening party game that Jane doesn't want to play and that ends up going fantastically wrong. (As an aside, the party game, combined with other elements in the play, not least Alan's role as snide commentator, put me in mind of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band. Perhaps not the first play others would think of in connection with this one, but there are, I think, striking similarities, and it's perhaps no coincidence that a revival of Crowley's play opened in New York around the same time as James Gibson's play.) However, too often for me James Gibson's innate cleverness as a writer gets in the way of what she clearly wants us to see is the real weight of her words. Nowhere was this more in evidence, for me, than in the opening scene, when the familiar conceit of the misunderstood referent in overlapping dialogue was very much in danger of wearing out its welcome.
There were similar moments elsewhere in the play, when what I suspect is James Gibson's sheer love of language, and her immense talent for constructing witty exchanges around words and the different syntactical possibilities for their delivery sends mixed messages not just about the substance, but also the tone, of a given scene. See, in this regard, Jane and Alan late in the play talking about her use of the Yiddish word "schwitzy"--clearly James Gibson wants this light banter about linguistic appropriation to do double duty re race relations in 21st-century America, but it ends up sounding forced and certainly tangential to the main concerns of the play. Though Marrell is black and Tom is white, and while Jane was also married to a black man, the topic of biracial couples is left largely unexplored in the play. Which is fine--why make it an issue? Except that this late exchange does just that by drawing attention to this topic's lack of exploration elsewhere in the play. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the love of language in the theatre. So long as that love is in service of the dramatic action. And so long as it's clear the characters love language as much as the playwright.
As a play, This, it seems to me, is not sure if it wants to be a drawing-room comedy or a Greek tragedy. Mostly it comes off as the former rather than the latter. But that certainly doesn't make it uninteresting. James Gibson is an very talented writer, and I will continue to follow her work.
Of that you can be sure.