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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

THIS: Jane's a Widow and Her Friends Want to Help Her

Also see Bob's review of Opus

THIS
Laura Ekstrand and
Harry Patrick Christian

Melissa James Gibson is an American playwright who over the decade has amassed more than her fair share of awards and developmental grants from the usual institutions and foundations. She has received critical accolades for her insightful, off-centered humor, and exploration of her contemporaries. I had not encountered any of her work prior to the current production of THIS. The play was commissioned by Playwrights Horizons which produced it last year at this time. It is now available to New Jersey audiences thanks to the Dreamcatcher Theatre, New Jersey's valuable actors' collective repertory. Thanks to a thoroughly natural, heartfelt performance, the extended confrontational and transformational scene which comprises a large portion of the second act has considerable theatrical sweep and will well reward those who attend. However, THIS has the earmarks of a play by an inexperienced, "promising" writer still learning her craft.

Jane aspires to be a poet and did, in fact, publish a volume years earlier. However, she supports herself and her elementary school aged daughter by working as a public school teacher. A year ago, Jane's husband died. Tonight Jane has been invited to the apartment of her closest friends, the bickering, miserable from the demands of caring for their baby Marrell and Tom. Also invited is a fourth close friend, Alan, a homosexual who is wittily cantankerous. This foursome have been friends since meeting when Jane, Marrell and Alan were college students and Tom was working on campus "mowing the lawn." There is a fifth guest, Jean-Pierre. Invited without the knowledge of Jane with the idea of introducing him to her, Jean-Pierre is a French physician practicing with Doctors Without Borders. Jane has been a bit of a basket case since her husband's illness and death.

Clever isn't always smart. The evening begins with a parlor game suggested by Marrell and Tom in which Jane will be the victim (my characterization). Jane doesn't want to play. She doesn't like games, but her "friends" cajole her into playing. Tom and Marrell tell Jane that she is to leave the room, while those remaining conjure up a story. Then, Jane will return and ask the others questions that can be answered either "yes" or "no" in order to attempt to guess the story. After Jane goes out into the hall, they reveal that there will be no story improvised. Any question that Jane asks that ends with a vowel will be answered "No"; any question ending with a consonant will be answered "Yes"; and any question ending with the letter "y" will be answered "Maybe". Thus, Jane will make up her own story based on what she is thinking.

In seconds, your mind goes from being aroused by the idea of a proposed game and wanting to accurately learn its rules to play it with your friends, to realizing how cruel and victimizing a game it is and that you would never play it on a vulnerable or unwilling friend. Thus, Marrell, Tom and Alan are either incredibly stupid or a trio of cruel bastards. Clever bit, Ms. Gibson, but it is one that leaves everyone, including the hapless viewer, losers. Jane will leave the gathering alienated and angry. How could it be otherwise?

Scene two is in Jane's apartment hallway. Tom has come to apologize to her. We learn that after the gathering, Jean-Pierre had caught up with Jane and walked her to the subway. Tom: "He's not your type; not like (your husband) Roy." Jane: "You mean he's not black." (Now, I must mention that Jane and Tom are white; and Marrell is and Roy was black. Except for the above lines and Alan's noting something to the effect that he is the only gay man with two interracial godchildren, it is irrelevant to the proceedings.) Tom says that he is jealous of Jean-Pierre's access to Jane, that he hears "voices in his head" telling him that he wants her. They kiss, and we know that, after the blackout, coitus immediately follows. Now, this is believable because Tom is unhappy with Marrell and resents his friend's social class background and college education, and Jane is weak and vulnerable.

Although a bit of transitional dramaturgy would be appropriate at this point, we already know all we need to know in order to enjoy the looming confrontational theatrical fireworks and their resolution. However, Gibson instead piles on three largely unnecessary scenes (albeit with some amusing dialogue) which convey precious little information as the first act crawls to an enervating close.

Three more such scenes begin the second act. Oh, it turns out that Marrell is a cabaret singer (not a very good one at that), so we get an extended musical respite at a little club along with a slew of other irrelevancies. Then, at long last, all of the quintet from the opening gathering are back in Marrell and Tom's apartment, and in comes a high tide of conflict and confrontation abetted by sharp and often witty dialogue that carries us along on an extended wave of theatrical buoyancy. This is made possible by Melissa James Gibson's sharp and smart dialogue, the wind in the sails direction of David Christopher, and solid performances by a cast of actors who are particularly in tune with one another.

Laura Ekstrand lavishes so much love and feeling onto her Jane that she wills us into believing Jane's ultimate revitalization although Gibson gives us precious little detail either about her malaise (beyond her inherently tragic situation) or the mechanism that allows her to jettison it. The detail of Ekstrand's performance makes us feel that we are able to read Jane's thoughts.

Nicole Callender (Marrell) and Scott McGowan (Tom) convey all the pain of a couple facing doubt and fear about the direction that their life has taken as responsibility (parenthood) and looming middle age become their reality. Christopher T. Miller does solid work as Jean-Pierre. Being a member of Doctors Without Borders is surely a good thing, but Miller captures the smug vanity of Jean-Pierre. Given his own delightful flamboyance and that of the role of Alan, Harry Patrick Christian actually underplays Alan a bit. This serves the role and the play.

THIS is the kind of contemporary play that gets seen in New York's major institutional Off-Broadway theatres. More and more, our high quality New Jersey theatres are bringing such new work across the Hudson. This is a very good thing.

THIS continues performances (Friday and Saturday 8 PM/ Sun. 2 PM) through November 14, 2010 at the Dreamcatcher Repertory Company, Baird Cultural Center in Meadowland Park, 5 Mead Street, South Orange, New Jersey 07079. Box Office: 973-378-7754 ext. 2228; online: www.dreamcatcherrep.org.

THIS by Melissa James Gibson; directed by David Christopher
Tom..........................Scott McGowan
Jane..........................Laura Ekstrand
Alan...............Harry Patrick Christian
Marrell....................Nicole Callender
Jean-Pierre.......Christopher T. Miller


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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