REVIEW: “This” at Barrington Stage

This One’s For You

by Barbara Waldinger

Barrington Stage Company’s play captures “the hilarious yet touching relationships of a circle of friends as they back their way into middle age.”  So reads Barrington Stage Company’s description of Melissa James Gibson’s play, This. True, but their production offers infinitely more to the fortunate theatregoers who make their way to see This on the St. Germain Stage.  The writing, directing and acting are of the highest caliber and make it a must-see in a season filled with quality work.

Winner of an OBIE Award for her 2002 play, [sic], and numerous fellowships, Gibson has seen her work  produced on stages throughout the country.   When asked about her literary style, she explains:  “I’m definitely attracted to writing that really sits on the edge of comic and deeply painful.  That, to me, is where life exists most fully.”  Premiering in 2009 at Playwrights Horizons, This is a character-driven play about four Gen-Xers who met in college some twenty years earlier—the interracial couple Tom (Eddie Boroevich), a carpenter, and Marrell (Erica Dorfler), a jazz singer, whose baby doesn’t sleep more than fifteen minutes at a time; Jane (Julia Coffey), a recently widowed poetry teacher and mother; and their gay, Jewish, single sidekick, Alan (Mark H. Dold in a virtuoso performance).  Add to the mix an outsider, Jean-Pierre (Paris Remillard), a charming French Doctor Without Borders, whom Tom and Marrell clumsily set up with Jane.

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Each of the four friends is facing a particular mid-life crisis, and the way they cope with their struggles and one another as they attempt to find a way forward is both unpredictable and a joy to watch. The play opens with a fast-paced party game, as the group convinces an unwilling Jane (the young widow) to leave the room while they make up a story that she will be called upon to deduce through questions and answers. Once called back, Jane is instructed to ask “yes” or “no” questions only; but what she doesn’t know (and we do) is that there is no story–the answer in each case is based purely on the last letter of Jane’s question:  if it’s a vowel, the answer it “no,” if a consonant, it’s “yes,” and if a “y” it’s maybe.  As a consequence, the person asking the questions is inadvertently inventing her own story, which is where the fun lies.  But the game backfires as Jane’s story becomes too personal, involving a woman whose husband is dead.  Distraught she flees the gathering. This is one of many times in the play when a seemingly harmless comment or event freezes our laughter in our throats as the characters face loneliness, the death of a loved one, lack of purpose, self-doubts, marital problems, parenthood and racial, sexual and religious tensions.

Gibson’s crackling dialogue is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin at his best:  educated, clever, sharp, wisecracking and fast-moving.  You’re likely to want to stop the action in order to fully absorb some of the witty aphorisms, as they often reflect what we feel but cannot express.  As often as not, it’s Alan who delivers such lines as:  “the What Do You Do question is just a short cut to the unspoken ranking system that’s going on in all interpersonal situations at all times.”  The script reads like poetry-— no full sentences, no punctuation, and multiple conversations seemingly take place at the same time, fugue-like.

The actors are uniformly excellent.  Boroevich’s Tom, the one who did not go to the friends’ Ivy League college but instead mowed the lawn there, beautifully expresses his unhappiness at home and unfulfilled longings, while his wife, who sees a therapist, engages in an intellectual analysis of her unhappy marriage to “the martyred artist” in a wonderfully ironic conversation with her best friend Jane, who can’t manage her own life or the secrets she carries.  As Jane, Coffey’s performance, so vulnerable and believable that it’s sometimes painful to watch, is luminous as she gradually comes to acknowledge the grief she has been suppressing.  Dold, a veteran at BSC, continues to surprise in the variety of characters that he embodies.  Whether Alan is sitting in the shadows interpreting Jane’s phony smiles, unsuccessfully coming on to Jean-Pierre for whom he wants to work as a do-gooder, or remembering every conversation he ever had as a mnemonist (which upsets those who prefer to remember words they wanted to say, rather than what they said), you feel the need to keep an eye on him even when the action centers on someone else.  He is hilarious, needy, eccentric, alcoholic, and very loving and supportive of his friends– like a prism, he exhibits a variety of different colors all at once.  Remillard’s doctor, who is mostly called on to be sexy and charming, is the least developed character.  The scene in which he’s on the phone, shouting entirely in French (with no translation) after hearing about an attack on an ambulance, while the other characters stare at him (uncomprehendingly?), concluding with a continuation of the dinner party as though nothing happened, is classic.

Kudos to Louisa Proske, the director, for keeping us on track as we follow these characters from one apartment to the other, from outside to inside, from home to work.  Together with the scenic designer, Brian Prather, they create every environment on the stage at once, nearly eliminating the need for set changes.  The newly widened St. Germain stage contains two apartments –one belonging to Tom and Marrell, including a modern stainless steel kitchen and living room with a piano, and the other to Jane:  a mess of a living room, littered with papers, books and clothes hanging from dryer racks that provokes Alan to advise her:  “you need to clean your house and buy some groceries and repair your coat and fix your life.”  The transitions from one apartment to the other, complete with an outside walkway and front door, are seamless, accompanied by jazz compositions provided by sound designer David Thomas.   Scott Pinkney offers the many lighting fixtures that illuminate each apartment while costume designer Tricia Barsamian dresses the actors in a way that perfectly captures their characters, including Alan’s frumpy sweaters and Marrell’s lovely purple dress and beige heels worn at the jazz club where she dazzles us with her gifts as a singer/pianist.

Nothing about this top-notch production is forgettable—except the title.  Don’t miss This”one.

This runs from August 3-27 at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage.  For tickets call 413-236-8888 or online at www.barringtonstageco.org.

Barrington Theatre Company presents This, by Melissa James Gibson. Cast:  Eddie Boroevich (Tom), Julia Coffey (Jane), Mark. H. Dold (Alan), Erica Dorfler (Marrell), Paris Remillard (Jean-Pierre), Rebecca Weiss (Voice of TV Producer).  Director:  Louisa Proske; Scenic Designer:  Brian Prather; Costume Designer:  Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Designer:  Scott Pinkney; Sound Designer:  David Thomas; Production Stage Manager:  Michael Andrew Rodgers.  Running Time:  one hour fifty minutes, no intermission; at the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA., from August 3, closing August 27, 2017.

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