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This

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

This
Julianne Nicholson and Glenn Fitzgerald.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Eleven years after its final episode aired, Seinfeld amazingly maintains its grip on our cultural language. The latest example, This, Melissa James Gibson’s new play at Playwrights Horizons, is one of the baldest yet. Paying adoring homage in every way except the deep seriousness of its underlying intent, it captures exactly that classic TV show’s super-slick aesthetic but not much of its magic.

A group of friends in their mid 30s who haunt a trendy (and impossibly oversized) dwelling. The playing of parlor games that are supposed to go nowhere, and emotional games that come by their inertia accidentally. Odd professions held by people with even odder personalities. And, most of all, a language so ripe with colorful abbreviations and twinkling metaphors that endless riffs on “doctors without borders,” the description of one person as an “aspiring optimist,” and the choice line “You’re not the boss of Africa” - to name but three instances of literally dozens - feel impossibly, impenetrably natural.

Gibson applies the conceit to her quintet of urban discontents with no end of skill. The disaffected Jane (Julianne Nicholson), a standardized test proctor and part-time poet, is deadpan waiting to happen; Jane’s best friend, Marrell (Eisa Davis), is the essence of ivory-tickling sophistication; Marrell’s husband, Tom, (Darren Pettie) is coarser, a cabinet maker with the expected wood fixation; Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is not only everybody’s self-deprecatingly witty gay best friend, but also blessed with an eidetic memory that ensures he never forgets a single word anyone utters; Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi) is the handsome and enigmatic French doctor-philanthropist, the outsider dragged into the others’ ridiculous roundelay and forced to try to understand it and maybe date Jane as part of the bargain.

This
Eisa Davis, Darren Pettie, Fitzgerald, Nicholson, and Louis Cancelmi.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Or so it appears from the first scene, which is consumed with Marrell and Tom trapping Jane in the depths of one of those maddening question-asking games, but with no actual set story for her to unravel. That Jane hates games only makes matters worse. The non-game game inspires Jane to melancholy as it leads her to recall the husband she lost a year earlier, and forces her to consider her own loneliness among her better-coping friends. Tom runs after her to apologize and ends up giving her a lot more than just his sympathy.

Their tryst, which couldn’t come at a worse time for either, triggers confessions and confrontations among everyone: Marrell tries to analyze what’s wrong with her marriage, Tom tries to determine what’s wrong with him, Alan frets that Jean-Pierre doesn’t like him, and Jean-Pierre is astonished that they’re all worrying about such petty things when true poverty and loss is destroying the very fabric of Africa. And perhaps their squabblings are shallow - but might they not just be hiding a more searing pain?

Yes, and that’s where This departs from Seinfeld - for better or worse. Gibson has chiseled some brilliant jokes and repartee into her play, but they never quite fit comfortably within the plot’s darker, starker dramatic framework. The loss, the anger, and the disintegrating trust that drive these people are conducted apart from the comedy, so the two halves are constantly battling rather than helping each other attain new heights. If pressed, I’d say the drama loses, because it has the furthest to go. But so many of the gags are in-and-out, two-second affairs, it can’t be said there are any real winners.

Daniel Aukin has directed the show beautifully, with a keen eye for stage pictures and ear for the rhythms so crucial to the dialogue - not a single moment is missed, even if few really rise to the transcendent heights Gibson obviously intends. Louisa Thomspon’s loft set is amazing in its detail, its scope and width and especially the organized clutter beautifully correlating to the characters’ fractured minds.

The actors inhabit the space beautifully, with Nicholson powerfully restrained as a burned out shell of a woman trying to rekindle her inner fires, Davis graceful as the emotionally parched Marrell, and Pettie appropriately all-over-the-place as the confused Tom. They all convey the sense of a long and abiding friendship between the trio that can weather any storm but the one it’s currently in. Fitzgerald and Cancelmi are convincing in their roles, but play flatter and more functional characters that seem more gimmicky than germane.

Ultimately, the rest of the play feels the same way. The laughs it spreads so freely and the tears it struggles but fails to aren’t natural companions in Gibson’s world, and the play never overcomes the mismatch. Like this year’s other big Seinfeld knock-off, Wildflower (at Second Stage Theatre Uptown this summer), it wants to be two very specific different things that may not be compatible within its own strictures. Gibson has settled for two okay plays rather than one really good one, and although it’s a trade-off that alternately entertains and enlightens, you can’t help but wish This could manage to do both at the same time.


This
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral