Theater Review: THIS (Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City)

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by Tony Frankel on August 10, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT?

At the top of Melissa James Gibson’s This, five urbanite thirty-somethings take part in an innocent parlor game that inadvertently goes awry for one of them: an unsuspecting woman just before the anniversary of her husband’s death. Not only does the scene become the best 10-minute play ever written, but the game is such a hoot that critics will no doubt run to their keyboards and explain the rules to their readers. Why? Because it will take up the space otherwise used to try and figure out what This is. You will get no such directions here, for once the game is over, so too is the play. What began as an irreverent, humorous, and shocking invitation into the lives of four friends ends up being a series of scenes that may be perfect for acting students, but adds up to little more than an excuse for a promising playwright to offer up unbelievably self-aware, whiny Manhattanites who slather us in an abundance of snappy witticisms, such as “I have no problem with self-involvement, except in others” and “I hate the word ‘blog;’ it sounds like a large accumulation of snot.”

This by Melissa James Gibson – directed by Daniel Aukin - Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver CityThe cover of the program has a picture of a doorway which belongs to a character we never meet: the nine year-old daughter of the aforementioned widow Jane (Saffron Burrows), who stands outside her little girl’s door at the end of the show to announce that she is back. The problem for us is the nagging question, “Back from what?” For, up to then, we only know Jane as the messy widow whose state of mourning makes the removal her husband’s ashes from off the refrigerator an insurmountable task. She is so lost in grief that she makes the unfixable mistake of sleeping with Tom (Darren Pettie), the husband of her best friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), who is at home with a newborn. It’s a great set-up for an evening of drama, but Gibson doesn’t focus on any of her characters long enough for there to be a reasonable trajectory; the well-written dialogue merely provides us with a passing interest in each new scene.

This by Melissa James Gibson – directed by Daniel Aukin - Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City

Marrell introduces a hunky French doctor, Jean-Pierre (Gilles Marini), to Jane as a possible love interest, but that’s never explored and is not the focus. Marrell and Tom are in a troubled marriage, but that’s not the focus, either. And then there’s the fourth-wheel friend Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), a loveless, depressed, and over-drinking gay man who spouts off amusing and self-deprecating anecdotes (gee, it’s a shame no one has come up with a character like that before). Alan is in a mid-life crisis because his gift/curse as a mnemonist (one with the ability to recall conversations verbatim) has only led to a lackluster television career, but Alan is also not the focus of the play (although his mnemonics are used to devastating effect for a later scene in which beans are spilled).

This by Melissa James Gibson – directed by Daniel Aukin - Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver CityNo, what is clearly an ensemble piece of barely intertwined conflicts suddenly turns into Jane delivering a monologue to her unseen daughter; and since that is the doorway splashed on the advertising, it tells me that Gibson and director Daniel Aukin understand what’s going on, but we are left in the same dark, messy hallway with a door shut in our face – even though the nearly two-hour, intermissionless show offers nary a dull moment.

Not to contradict myself, but Gibson is a fantastic writer: she has a way of blending poetry with sardonic wit that is refreshing. Since her play is concerned with the difficulty of communication between frustrated and introspective people, one is reminded of Chekhov. When many of her characters reuse the phrase “I’m Sorry,” it elucidates the famous apology as a way in which we cover up our feelings in a trite expression; this shows Gibson as a future addition to the echelons, perhaps, of Mamet or Pinter – she also writes her plays without punctuation. At this point, however, her sparkling and rich dialogue alone cannot transport us into the state of catharsis that is promised at the beginning.

I’m sorry.

And then there’s the title: a dramaturg may be able to point to the meaning behind Gibson’s title, but the opaqueness will leave most theatergoers stymied. Like title, like play. As with God of Carnage, some may confuse this for a great play because of the verbal tomfoolery and professional veneer, but it appears that we are really lavishing praise on promising and/or prolific playwrights with the fervor normally bestowed on Williams and Kushner. (In 2009, Charles Isherwood at the New York Times hailed This as “the best new play to open Off-Broadway this fall.”)

This by Melissa James Gibson – directed by Daniel Aukin - Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City

This by Melissa James Gibson – directed by Daniel Aukin - Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver CityDavis, Fitzgerald, and Pettie have all transferred from the New York production, so they know their characters well; Burrows is lovely as Jane, but the actress is thwarted because there is very little arc to her character. TV and film actor Marini is appropriately suave and French for his role, but it appears the actor has not spent much time on stage, for he never held for a laugh once. All of the actors are likeable, even when their characters can be petulant, annoying or distant.

Being that four of the original five designers came to the Kirk Douglas from NYC, one wonders if Off-Broadway will soon have bus-and-truck productions that hop from regional theater to regional theater. Still, Louisa Thompson’s set is a marvel of design – Marrell and Tom’s apartment is so perfectly cluttered that it evokes a sense of claustrophobia in the audience before a word is spoken; it makes perfect sense when the piano in their living room becomes the centerpiece of a scene in a nightclub. The songs sung by Marrell (presumably with lyrics by Gibson) are the work of Peter Eldridge – mirroring the play’s dialogue, he dabbles in the luxuriousness of rich chords, but his songs do not add up to anything that moves or inspires. And that is the problem with This.

photos by Craig Schwartz

This
Center Theatre Group
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd in Culver City
ends on August 28, 2011
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

{ 4 comments }

Julie August 14, 2011 at 12:05 am

I was sad to read this snarky, dismissive review of a play I saw tonight and loved.

John Topping August 14, 2011 at 12:20 am

Hey Tony

>one wonders if Off-Broadway will soon have bus-and-truck productions that hop from regional theater to regional theater

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

If it’s a production that’s worth seeing outside of NYC, and as much of the original production as possible is transferred, then why not bring quality theater to other towns? Because it puts locals out of business?

JT

Tony Frankel August 30, 2011 at 5:03 pm

I should have been more pointed and discussed the Center Theatre Group alone instead of lumping them into the category of regional theatres. I wonder if Off-Broadway will soon have bus-and-truck productions because regionals seem to be favoring known playwrights or previously produced works over original fare.

In this year alone, CTG has brought in two (nearly) intact shows: THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN and THIS. Most regionals do indeed produce the latest fare from OFF-BROADWAY, but with wholly original productions.

It should also be noted that many different regional theatres from around the country also produce the same playwrights you heard of last year (such as Greenberg, Moses, Rebeck and LaBute), as well as the same play, (such as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning CLYBOUNE PARK, which is headed to the Douglas after presentations at Wooly Mammoth, A.C.T., Steppenwolf and others).

Center Theatre Group is a Los Angeles institution whose mission statement includes the following: “we present…groundbreaking new works, explosive productions of the classics and hit Broadway plays and musicals.” Well, the Ahmanson is bringing in hit Broadway shows this season (WAR HORSE, FELA! and AMERICAN IDIOT), a National Tour (BRING IT ON!), and one classic: FUNNY GIRL – but no groundbreaking new works.

Well, let’s look to the Taper: they only had ONE world premiere in the 2010 season (the Randy Newman musical, HARPS AND ANGELS), and the upcoming 2011 season only has ONE original work, and that is a retooling of a previous play by Theresa Rebeck. (And don’t get me started on last year’s nonplussing BURN THIS, which is neither a classic nor was it an explosive production.)

Thus, we’re left with the Douglas, which I hoped would satisfy CTG’s artistic vision, which states, “[we] bring new work and new voices to the stage through collaboration with other Los Angeles theatre companies and ensembles.” Well, local company (and Taper mainstay) Culture Clash returns with AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSE, but they just had a slot last year with PALESTINE, NEW MEXICO. Rude Mechs from Austin just had a slot with THE METHOD GUN, yet they will return this season with I’VE NEVER BEEN SO HAPPY. Local ensemble The Burglars of Hamm will try out their new work, but it will receive only ONE performance of a staged reading.

Otherwise, nothing new and nothing generated from Los Angeles.

Products which are already tested and have proved to turn a profit (as we have seen with Corporate America) will always put locals out of business. That is not my issue. Bringing intact shows to regional theatres puts vision out of business by promoting art outside its own sphere; there is a subtle insinuation that regionals (in this case CTG) are incapable of presenting original plays or newer plays (such as THIS) with a new vision.

I am grateful that the Douglas presented the Druid touring production of THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, but the trend of presenting established ensembles, established playwrights and established tours may be the precursor of regional theatres as a showplace for what audiences previously liked in the rest of the country. Which means we are letting our audiences dictate what theatre presents in the future, which is very dangerous because audiences don’t know what they want until they see it.

Rare is the showcasing of original works, which are being drowned out by the aforementioned productions.

That is my issue.

Mark August 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

I couldn’t agree more!

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