Review by Tulis McCall
2 Dec 2009
The afternoon started out promising with plenty of time to feast on this wonderful set by Louisa Thompson. Clearly this was an apartment belonging to the parents of a baby. Chock-a-block full of the detritus of a life bursting its seams. A little seedy, a little creative, a little sticky.
Into this world drop four nearly middle aged chums discussing playing a party game. Jane (Julianne Nicholson) doesn’t want to play. Jane hates games. Jane’s best friend Marrell (Eisa Davis) and her husband Tom (Daren Pettie), parents of the offstage baby, and the eccentric Alan (Glen Fitzgerald) all want Jane to play. When the last guest of the evening, Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi) arrives from an international health conference, he is conscripted into the crowd and also wants Jane to play.
The game is this: Jane leaves the room with the understanding that the group will make up a story that she has to unravel when she returns using only “yes” or “no” questions. The catch is that there is no story, and the group collectively agrees to answer “yes” to every question ending with a consonant, “no” to questions ending in a verb, and “maybe” to those ending with a “y”. When Jane returns there is a very clever scene which results in her thinking that the story that is no story is about her because she is not quite over mourning her dead husband who has been gone nearly a year. Jane is embarrassed and leaves in a huff. We never find out why her good friends wanted her to be the butt of this deceptive game.
The play could have ended right there. We would all have been okay, and the next 90 or so minutes could have been put to good use.
But noooooooo………. On we went dropping breadcrumbs. At the center of "This" is Jane, whose husband has been dead one year. She has not moved his ashes from on top of the refrigerator. She is on bad terms with her daughter. She has not dated, and her apartment is a dump. Jane is slogging to the beat of her own tired drummer, but Melissa James Gibson has made the odd choice to have this play delve into everything BUT Jane without latching on to one that propels the story forward. Marrel and Tom’s relationship is in trouble that reaches out and sideswipes Jane. But we don’t quite focus on that. Alan, who is in mid-life crisis, wishing that he was something more than a mnemonist (an individual with the ability to remember data verbatim) and DO something with his life. But we don’t focus on that. Jean-Pierre is attractive and charismatic, but we don’t’ go down that road either. Characters’ tracks are parallel and none of those twains meet.
The actors do the best they can with this material, which must be difficult because there is no trajectory that leads anywhere. They wander from scene to scene yearning and frustrated. There are campfires of connections that dot the landscape, but we are never allowed to linger long enough to feel more than passing interest. In a clever bit of staging we even get to see Eisa Davis in a nightclub solo. It is a moment of clarity in an otherwise choppy landscape.
Even in the last two scenes, which are meant to tie up Jane’s loose ends, and explain behavior we wanted to understand much earlier, Nicholson is left adrift. In Jane’s slightly drunken eulogy to her husband she never makes eye contact with anyone or anything in the room, making her appear to have a vision deficiency. The final scene is set in her daughter’s bedroom. Maude, who we never meet, has gone to bed angry because Jane forgot to pick her up on time. Maude is asleep, and Jane is free to tell her daughter everything she has held back Maude for the past year. It is a nearly embarrassing cliché that Nicholson handles with grace. All sorts of quirky bits come tumbling out, and Jane begins to take form. She concludes by telling her daughter that dying is really a crappy idea and then, “Okay, I’m here now Maude. I’m back.” Would that we had a glimpse of who Jane was before she left.
So. In keeping with the rhythm of this production, Jane’s train pulls into the station 30 seconds before the rest of us depart. Timing is everything.
"Irritating and endearing in equal parts, they (the characters) weave a compelling spell."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Director Daniel Aukin balances the razor-sharp observational comedy with naturalistic staging."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Has an obvious plot, with frustratingly underdeveloped characters."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"'This' is surprisingly tough-minded and funny, too."
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
"Little action and less plot, no character revelation worth the wait, and ultimately no cohesive point to emerge from all the clever palaver."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety