Through Nov. 3
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
With “This,” playwright Melissa James Gibson briefly tracks the not altogether graceful slide into middle age of a small group of longtime friends. And while the issues confronting them — mortality, family and the seven year itch — are heavily tread topics, the author’s word play, obsessive parsing and quirky point of view make these subjects feel altogether fresh. Her characters can be ultra-glib, sometimes annoyingly so, but they’re also layered and relatable.
The Obie Award-winning dramedy is currently playing at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre in a terrifically acted production deftly staged by the company’s producing artistic director Ryan Rilette.
It begins in the New York apartment of unhappily married Tom (Todd Scofield) and Marrell (Felicia Curry). Their newborn doesn’t sleep much and their nerves are jangly. On hand for a small gathering are Marrell’s close college friends Jane (Lisa Bruneau), a poet whose husband died exactly a year ago, and Alan (Michael Glenn), a self-deprecating gay mnemonicist (remembers every conversation he’s ever heard verbatim) who’s rarely without a drink or comment. And joining the foursome for the first time is Frenchman Jean-Pierre (out actor Will Gartshore), a handsome physician with Doctors Without Borders. He’s there as a possible love match for Jane, but it’s Marrell who seems to be falling for his Gallic charms.
The hosts bicker about baby, words and the Brita water filter, but they’re hell bent on having a good time, especially Marrell. Determined to pull Jane out of mourning, she forces her reluctant pal to play a party game. It falls flat. The evening is a dud.
Soon after, Marrell’s woodworker husband Tom pays a visit to Jane. He has feelings. Things happen that really shouldn’t, and most of the remainder of the play is about Jane resolving her guilt. The rather vague demonstrative pronoun title refers to both Jane and Tom’s regrettable deed and other more existential and typically unmentioned problems.
James Kronzer’s ingenious revolving set is a dizzying puzzle of gray blocks that moves to create living rooms, a TV studio (where Tom broadcasts his memory trick to the masses), and a nightclub. As jazz singer/songwriter Marrell, Curry gets to show off a gorgeous, sultry voice with two torchy songs composed by Peter Eldridge.
The cast is top notch. Bruneau’s Jane is a wonderfully multifaceted portrayal of a real woman who’s been dealt a relatively rough hand. Held up as the sainted widow by her friends, she proves her humanness at every turn — both unintentionally and on purpose. And Gartshore is a delight as the worldly Frenchman who serves as a voice of reason among the comparably self-involved Americans. Jean-Pierre’s good looks and selfless vocation are an inspiration, prompting Alan to rethink his life — maybe he should aspire to do more than regurgitate chitchat?
And fortunately for the production, Glenn is playing Alan the familiarly drawn gay boozy sidekick whose cutting rejoinders couldn’t be more predictable. Glenn brings funny to a lot of spots where there isn’t much.
At about 90 minutes without intermission, “This” moves at a quick pace. The end is touching though unexpected. Speaking with heartfelt sincerity to her young unseen daughter, Jane emerges as a protagonist in what has seemed more an ensemble work. It leaves you wondering what happened to the other folks. But perhaps that’s best. Like life, Gibson’s play leaves room for some more of this and a lot more of that.