THIS: a funny, touching—and uneasy—mix of comedy and drama

Jane (Loretta Walsh) seeks comfort from Alan (Benjamin Ratner) in THIS.

Actors Loretta Walsh and Benjamin Ratner negotiate tricky emotional and stylistic terrain in THIS. (Photo by Brandon Tang)

I laughed. I cried. I was confused.

In her 2009 script, This, playwright Melissa James Gibson introduces us to five witty New Yorkers—well, four New Yorkers and a Frenchman—who are desperately trying to negotiate the disappointments and responsibilities of early middle age. They’ve made it this far but nobody—except for the smug Frenchman—is pleased with the results.

Gibson employs some excellent conventions. In the opening scene, Tom and Marrell are throwing their first dinner party since the birth of their son. Tom suggests a game. Their friend, Jane will leave the room, the others will make up a story and, on her return, Jane will try to guess what the story is by asking yes or no questions. Except the rules aren’t what they seem to be and the game turns into a kind of Rorschach test: Jane unwittingly unearths a narrative about a widow who is involved in romantic triangle with a married couple. Jane was widowed a year earlier. Things get awkward. Jane leaves.

The next scene fulfills the game’s uneasy prophecy: Tom shows up at Jane’s door and declares that the only thing that makes him happy is the thought of touching her—and the two of them have impulsive, escapist sex.

So far so terrific: clever writing and high stakes.

Many lines are witty: when Jane reinforces her claim that she’s not a successful poet by pointing out that she only had one book published 15 years ago, Marrell retorts: “Fifteen years! That’s like yesterday for a poet!” And Alan, who has been friends with Jane, Marrell, and Tom since college is a professional mnemonist: he remembers conversations verbatim. So when Tom tells Marrell that, “I said I didn’t mean for things to escalate like this”, Alan can say, “No, you said, ‘Why do you always overreact?’” and it’s funny.

The stylistic relationship between the comedy and the drama never feels completely coherent, though. Some heavy shit goes down in THIS: Jane has betrayed her best friend, Marrell and Tom’s marriage may explode, and Jane is still suffering chest-crushing grief over the death of her husband. And, as they’re going through all of this, playwright Gibson has these same characters engage in extended bouts of arch wordplay. The two pieces don’t fit. Don’t get me wrong: comedy and drama can certainly co-exist. But the comedy here is sometimes too glib and the drama too unsupported to make the equation fully functional.

Still, there are lots of rewards to be had in terms of both humour and pathos in the script and, under Bill Dow’s direction, many of the players in this production do stellar work with the material.

Benjamin Ratner plays acerbic, gay Alan using the same shtick I’ve seen him use for 30 years. And here’s the amazing thing: it always works. Physically, Ratner is still to the point of being deadpan. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him transform physically as an actor. But he is always laser-focused in his emotional truth. As Alan, he fully inhabits the character’s melancholy stoicism. So, when Jane tearfully asks for his help and the best Alan can muster is, “”Lots of things will be all right Jane and there’s no reason this couldn’t be one of them,” the moment is wonderfully, wistfully complicated.

Brad Dryborough’s performance as Tom is as real as dandruff. Not the least bit mannered, Dryborough never appears to be acting, which is pretty much an actor’s goal, so good for him.

And, as Jane, Loretta Walsh expertly handles the play’s fridge-to-stove dynamics of humour and pain. Inhabiting Jane’s grief, she’s the one who made me cry.

As written, Jean-Pierre, the French guy, is basically a prop. He’s there as a foil, to provide cool European perspective on American self-obsession and fear of sex, and he’s a sex object for Marrell and Jane. Playing him must be kind of a thankless job. In this production, Zak Santiago manages to score some nice laughs with Jean-Pierre’s bemusement, but he is clearly not a native French speaker.

Karen Holness does much better with Marrell. In one of the most impressive passages in her performance, Holness sheds authentic tears for Marrell as the character delivers a ridiculously sentimental—and deliberately comic—monologue about a conversation she had with God.

At one point, Jane says, “The wolf is never far away from the door, Marrell.  The wolf is the door.” Presumably that’s where designer Mark McDonald drew his inspiration for the set, in which a door become a table, other doors become a sofa, and so on. This feels like a gimmick, though. It has no particular resonance. And the furniture all looks uncomfortable.

Although the script doesn’t gel for me stylistically, I enjoyed a lot of what I experienced with Kindred Entertainment’s production of THIS. As I said, besides being confused, I did laugh and cry.

THIS By Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Bill Dow. A Kindred Entertainment Production at Studio 16 on Sunday, April 29. Continues until May 5.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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