A hunky French doctor without borders named Jean-Pierre (Gilles Marini) looks somewhat askance at the quartet of Americans in This, Melissa James Gibson's absorbing domestic comedy now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Jean-Pierre can't fathom why the just-disclosed one-time fling between woodworker Tom (Darren Pettie) and teacher Jane (Saffron Burrows) should be such a crisis for Tom's wife, Marrell (Eisa Davis) — even if Jane, widowed one year earlier, is or was Marrell's best friend.
"This is upsetting," Marrell says flirtingly to Jean-Pierre, as he's heading out to serve on a panel about disease and starvation in Africa.
"No," Jean-Pierre replies, holding up the manila folder with his notes for the conference. "This is upsetting."
And yet This, a Playwrights Horizons production presented by Center Theatre Group, isn't really a play about the world at large. It's about the small worlds of the Upper West Side and West L.A., and the kinds of people who inhabit such places and who attend plays like This. Which isn't many, in the larger scheme of things. It's the kind of play that might seem important to less than 1 percent of the world's population. It's unlikely that anybody else would care much beyond the play's soap operatic reach. This is nonetheless a beautifully written, performed, staged (by Daniel Aukin) and designed parlor game — so beautifully that it almost seems metaphysical, in a Chekhovian way, for a moment or two.
Jane's longtime friend, a good-hearted, aging gay alcoholic named Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), bemoans his "dinky" life of unemployment and the "gift" he has for recalling conversations verbatim, which lands him on TV shows. This gift will come in handy when his friends Marrell and Tom, rehashing Tom's infidelity, come up with different versions of what was said by them that may have triggered Tom's feelings of diminishment, that motivated his affair. Alan will serve as the most reliable source for what was actually said, word for word.
In one scene, at Jane's house, Alan sits curled up on a chair, pondering why the veins in his hands aren't symmetrical.
"Why are you sitting in the almost dark?" Jane asks him.
Alan's droll reply: "It's the human condition, Jane, in case you haven't noticed."
In a later scene, using her husband's ashes as a prop, Jane will chant, "Down with death!" — thereby revealing the core of her grief, the reasons for her severe veneer, and the reason it would crumble with the earnest affections of her best friend's husband. Because, at its best, This is about facing down the end of things. And it accomplishes this for a moment or two.
Jean-Pierre's This is the African continent, which has always served as a measure of our solipsism when we bemoan our fate. And which puts in perspective, however briefly and fleetingly, the comparatively petty life crises of four middle-aged Americans in New York, which form the play's centerpiece. They're all struggling in their own clumsy ways to grapple with the blows life imparts: Stoic Jane never recovered from the death of her young husband, whose ashes she keeps in a paper bag on her fridge. Because if she buries or spreads them in some beautiful place, with all the finality that ritual implies, and as Marrell has been urging, Jane can no longer pretend he's just away on a business trip. His death left her to rear their 10-year-old daughter by herself.
Tom and Marrell's marriage strains from their infant's inability to sleep for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. She derides him for failing to refill their Brita water-filtering jug to the proper level, or for leaving a plank for his woodworking in their living room.
"That's not a plank, Marrell," he explains. "That's black maple. ... I'm going to use it for something."
"I guess I'm sort of begging you, Tom," she says in front of house guests, "that before you bring in any more things you're Going To Use For Something into our home, you first use the things you're Going To Use For Something that are already here."
One of his revenges for such public denigration is to fill the Brita jug barely to the line of the filter, in order to fulfill his duty and annoy his wife at the same time. His larger reaction is to fling himself into the arms, and onto the body, of his wife's desperately lonely best friend, Jane.
Among the critics' complaints about the original 2009 production at Playwrights Horizons is the play's lack of focus and lack of character. The former is a foolish argument in a play whose very aim is to provide a theatrical CAT scan of a tribe. The play's focus is its intersections of crises. From those crash sites come the view of how what's small in life gets shaped by larger, more daunting forces — the passage of time and the way death rolls in for a visit, sometimes by surprise.
The latter complaint seems similarly fallacious, at least from the current production: Though Alan teeters on the stereotype of the lonely, kindly gay friend, Fitzgerald portrays him with such an authentically understated conviction, his layers of affection and agony emerge as though in silent vapors through the character's skin.
Burrows' Jane is similarly striking, with a disposition almost as ferocious as her jaded wisdom. She appears impenetrably world-weary, and the underlying cause emerges in one scene that's as harrowingly ritualistic as it is hauntingly poetical.
Davis and Pettie, depicting the marriage in crisis, do so through furtive glances and earnest attitudes that imply layers of history beyond the reach of their dialogue.
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Louisa Thompson's set design, with textures of brick and a skylight that tilts back when needed, cleanly serves the play's multiple locations.
Though This is largely a soap opera, at least it's an intelligent and enlightened character study, which is better than most. Its reach for the long view is still a reach, consisting of a lofty reference or two, accompanied by a certain ungainly posture of importance. The closing image is a sentimental one, that of a child in this world, trying to suggest something far greater than what has actually transpired onstage.
THIS | By Melissa James Gibson | Presented by Center Theatre Group and Playwrights Horizons at the Kirk Douglas Theatre | 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues., Wed., Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 9 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; Mon., Aug. 22, 8 p.m. | Through Aug. 28 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org