Melissa James Gibson’s work plays with honesty and artifice, with mixed results
It’s unclear whether it’s the characters or the actors doing the performing for much of Melissa James Gibson’s This, a tension that’s simultaneously key to the play’s success and one of its potential pitfalls. If that’s one too many contradictions in terms for you, that’s understandable. But hey, welcome to adulthood.
Last seen in Chicago in a warmly received 2011 production at Theater Wit, This seems at first glance like a dramedy ripe for its own Netflix Original Series, with all the pros and cons that entails. Married couple Marrell (Tania Richard) and Tom (Steve O’Connell) squabble over little things (Brita, or Bree-ta?), the stress of two sleep-deprived new parents spilling out even as they attempt to throw a dinner party. While Marrell’s motive for the party may be to set up her widowed friend Jane (Amy Rubenstein) with handsome French doctor Jean-Pierre (Brian Grey), an innocent game sets off an emotional bomb within Jane, which leads toward infidelity, heartache, all sorts of truths told, and some nifty comic high jinks to boot. It’s all very tidily messy and perfectly imperfect.
Does that mean it works? Yeah, sure. Sometimes the sheen of artifice the characters wear like armor feels like just another part of the story, though it can also feel like restraint on the part of the actors, rather than the people. Regardless, the play’s most rewarding moments come when the performers let that armor fall away, if only for a moment. Restrained at times by Carl Menninger’s occasionally stilted staging—a scene between Jane and her unseen daughter falls particularly flat—and sometimes by the characters themselves, the actors snatch hungrily at every moment of honesty as they stumble in and out of the many doors provided by Katie-Bell Kenney’s evocative scenic design.
When they manage to grab those moments, the production soars. Each member of the talented ensemble gets a bite or two, with Joe Zarrow’s Alan, the group’s requisite wise-cracking gay friend, getting the lion’s share. It’s a testament to Zarrow’s standout performance that Alan never feels like a trope, conveying with gentle smiles and a few barbs what a mixed blessing his perfect memory can be. Rubenstein’s addled, shamefaced Jane also draws the audience in with some frequency, and her moments of artifice ring the most true. The balance epitomized by these two makes for an emotionally resonant experience that, while uneven, is certainly comprised of far more ups than downs. Which, come to think of it, also sounds a lot like adulthood.
Windy City Playhouse. By Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Carl Menninger. Brian Grey, Steve O’Connell, Tania Richard, Amy Rubenstein, Joe Zarrow. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
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Having read this play beforehand, I had certain thoughts as to how particular scenes would be played, and how characters would speak. So inevitably, this didn't look or play like I thought it would. Like reading a book before you see the movie, this felt like a very similar situation. Perhaps I would've liked the story better if I hadn't already had a picture in my head, but I agree that overall this show was a mixed bag. The actors were strong and delivered their parts well, but some scenes fell a little flat, and from where I sat on set some of the action was hard to see. If puzzling out problems in a mess of contradictions is your style, this is your show.