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article imageReview: Superbly scripted adultery comedy 'THIS' makes Toronto debut Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Mar 22, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - The theatre of Melissa James Gibson has arrived north, and it's about time. The Canuck scribe's 'THIS', a brilliantly written comedy-drama about a group of thirtysomething friends in crisis, opened at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre last night.
Gibson's a far bigger name in New York and Los Angeles than in her country of origin, but Canadian Stage has brought her acclaimed 2009 play to T.O. after successful runs off-Broadway and in Vancouver. And in spite of director Matthew Jocelyn's baffling choice to stage THIS with a stripped-down, minimalist set and no lighting changes, Gibson's consistent flair for clever dialogue and empathy for her characters shine through boldly, as does a confident and passionate cast.
Standing out is Stratford Festival veteran Laura Condlln: she brings the right level of restrained grief and suppressed guilt to Jane, a poet and widowed mother who still keeps her late husband's ashes on top of her fridge a year later. She's longtime friends with jazz singer Marrell (Yanna McIntosh) and carpenter Tom (Jonathon Young), a strained married couple struggling with an infant son, and Alan (Alon Nashman), an outspoken, middle-aged gay single who's unsure where his own life is headed. “My life is an American movie,” Alan says at one point, adding that he wants it “to be a foreign film.”
A small get-together at the couple's pad sets tensions and complications in motion when it becomes clear that the others are trying to set Jane up with an attractive French doctor, Jean-Pierre, played by Christian Laurin. (“He should not be left unslept with,” as Marrell puts it.) In a hilariously uncomfortable scene, the group plays a party game that accidentally opens Jane's wounds about her husband's death while bringing out her insecurity about dating again. Afterwards, Tom's attempt to apologize to Jane turns into a sudden, sloppy seduction. And thus follows a chain of secrets, lies and utter neuroses that begins to expose the cracks and hypocrisies in these characters' fabricated lives.
THIS is about a lot of things, and one of the key things it's about is language. Words are carefully chosen, analyzed and debated over throughout the play – from the inappropriate use of Yiddish terms and the pronunciation of “Brita” to the proper name of an infant carrier, or “bjorn” – and dialogue often means more than it seems to, occasionally used as a weapon or to indirectly express hostility or shame. The open-ended title is used as a euphemism for Tom's tryst with Jane, but it could refer to almost any theme you want.
Gibson's dialogue is often terse, rhythmic, quick-paced and reactive, as if characters are trying to one-up each other in a tense game of Questions. But it's also full of intense monologues in which people's inner selves spill out all over. It's funny, poignant, even quotable dialogue that sounds both realistic and deliberately constructed at the same time, if that makes any sense.
“I need to maintain the purity of my bias,” Jane tells Tom as she refuses to hear his point of view, both acknowledging and defending her own personal irresponsibility. Earlier, the oblivious Marrell compliments Jane's ostensibly honest life – “You know how to keep the wolf away from the door” – to which Jane replies, “The wolf is the door.” And when Jane shamelessly advises Marrell, “Adultery is not the answer,” she quips back, “That sounds like a bumper sticker.”
Smart, witty lines abound, but that's not to say Gibson's play is flawless. A scene in which Alan appears on a talk show to discuss his memory abilities feels out of place, adding a media-parody element to what's essentially a social drama. It's as if Gibson didn't want to keep Alan limited to a supporting role and decided to beef his part up a bit. Yet the character already works well enough as an acerbic, truth-telling fool in the background, and Nashman fills the part with likeable obnoxiousness. It's worth pointing out that he succeeds in playing a saucy gay guy without resorting to the usual camp stereotypes.
Jocelyn's direction keeps the play moving like fireworks, each cast member driving each other's performances with emotion and seeming spontaneity. In an experimental attempt to involve the audience more closely into the action, he and set designer Astrid Janson have stripped the Berkeley space down to its bare shell, with exposed brick walls and a floor that's just a basic wood layer; the sparse set consists of little more than a piano, a fridge, a cabinet, a trash can and a park bench that doubles as a sofa for interior scenes. Actors often sit in reserved audience seats when they're both in and out of scenes, as if to make us feel like we're guests at the party too.
Unfortunately, these eccentric staging decisions end up being distracting and breaking the audience's suspension of disbelief more than achieving anything new or original. Most puzzling is Jason Hand's lighting direction (or lack thereof), which consists of nothing but house lights up all the way through. The lack of variety in lighting levels makes transitions between scenes, and the switch to the final bow, very awkward – although McIntosh's musical interludes at the piano work well, adding an extra emotional element.
THIS is a superb play being staged in a peculiar way, and you should check it out regardless of its technical design. Gibson's amazing, unique ear for dialogue is balanced by a gift for creating real, flawed yet highly sympathetic characters, all contributing to a potent portrait of Generation X struggling with adult issues and responsibility. Let's hope this isn't the last Toronto sees of this very talented, Vancouver-bred playwright.
More about Theatre, canadian stage, canstage, melissa james gibson, Play
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