Popular culture has long been rife with New York apartment explorations of adultery, loneliness, failing relationships and other midlife disappointments, in everything from Woody Allen's films to Will & Grace. With her play This, which had its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on Thursday (it opened off-Broadway in late 2009), Canadian-born-and-raised playwright Melissa James Gibson adds an authentic – and entertaining – voice to the urban-angst canon.
It's been a year since Jane's (Megan Follows) husband died, leaving her a single mother. Her best friend, Marrell (Karen Holness), has her over so she can fix her up with Jean-Pierre (Fabrice Grover), a French physician with Doctors Without Borders. Marrell and her husband, Tom (Todd Thomson), aren't exactly a model of marital bliss: They have a baby that sleeps in 15-minute increments, so they're exhausted and at each other's throats. Also present for the wine-soaked gathering is Alan (Dmitry Chepovetsky), their funny, self-deprecating gay friend.
The tone – fast-paced and funny with a strong hint of danger – is set immediately, as the not-so-smug marrieds convince a reluctant Jane to play a game. She leaves the room, they will concoct a story; when she returns, she has to ask questions to figure out what the story is. But it's a trick – or, at least, a joke: There's no story, in fact, and their "yes," "no" or "maybe" answers will be determined by whether Jane's questions end in a vowel, a consonant or a "y."
This may sound somewhat complicated and not very exciting on paper, but it's a wonderful device, serving as an introduction to Jane's state of mind (her questions reveal more than the answers ever could) and also providing the audience with some genuine laughs.
In the days following the game, things get complicated, and the delicate balance among this long-time circle of friends is threatened by the actions of two lonely, scared characters facing midlife with a desperation they may not have thought possible when they started out on their paths.
These situations and issues are hardly unexamined on the stage, but they ring true in This, thanks to an excellent script and a superb, nuanced performance by Follows as a single mother trying to keep it together for her daughter, but stuck in her grief because, really, she has refused to acknowledge it.
Under Amiel Gladstone's direction, the one-hour-and-40-minute play (performed without an intermission) soars by, never dragging or losing its way.
Chepovetsky is wonderful as Alan, raising the disillusioned-with-life-single-gay-man character beyond cliché – and he is very, very funny. Thomson portrays the how-did-I-get-here unhappily married husband with honesty and understatement. He is quietly lost, and despite some less-than-honourable actions, which we will not disclose here, he earns the audience's compassion. As the activist doctor, Grover delivers the play's most chilling line, shattering the world of self-involved privilege by providing a more global perspective on what constitutes true trouble.
Holness, on opening night, did not keep pace with her co-stars, seeming less comfortable in her role, and less believable, with a glaring slip-up: pronouncing "Brita" with a short "i." This may not sound egregious, but coming a few minutes after she delivers a spirited argument to her husband and friends declaring the proper pronunciation of the water filter to be "Breeta," with a long "e," it was jarring.
The wordplay in the work is clever and feels authentic; never does it seem as if the playwright is showing off. Why wouldn't well-educated, Socrates-quoting characters make witty observations about such expressions as "I just got the baby down," or lecture on the proper pronunciation of a water filter? (The Canadian in me wonders whether the frequency with which the characters say they're sorry was a shout-out to Gibson's homeland.)
But words are not just for play; they also carry a great weight. They are powerful – so much so that changing a single word in a sentence can significantly alter its meaning: "Because it's only been a year" is a far cry from "Because it's been a whole year."
Language is so powerful that one small, simple word – "this" – can represent an enormous, complicated state of affairs; the word can mean everything, and change everything.
- Written by Melissa James Gibson
- Directed by Amiel Gladstone
- Starring Megan Follows
- At the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver
This is at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre until Jan. 29.