This past Friday I was fortunate enough to catch Vancouver playwright Melissa James Gibson’s play This at the Vancouver Playhouse. This opened as an Off-Broadway production in 2009, but this enactment, which runs until January 29, is its first Canadian incarnation. It’s a play that’s hard to summarize: it’s about four college friends going through various personal and relationship crises, it’s a fast-paced comedy, it’s about death, and it’s about adultery.
Megan Follows stars as Jane, poetry teacher and exam proctor who lost her husband one year earlier. The play opens with Jane visiting her friends, married Merrell and Tom and the single and gay Alan, as well as Doctor without Borders Jean-Pierre, whom Merrell hopes to set up with Jane. Throughout the play, the intense inner focus of Jane, Merrell, Tom, and Alan is contrasted with the more worldly and objective perspective of Jean-Pierre.
The entire cast was great. Follows’ guilt-ridden, grief-stricken, and distracted Jane was pitch-perfect. But it was Dmitry Chepovetsky who stole the show as Alan, managing to pull subtlety out of his role as well as keeping the audience in stitches.
The play is artfully crafted. The actors Right off the bat I started noticing quotes I wanted to remember, but the dialogue was often overlapping and was delivered with superb timing and energy by the cast that I couldn’t keep track of all the memorable lines. The one part that bothered me was a rape joke during a scene between Alan and Jane, but luckily they moved off the topic quickly and it wasn’t a major part of the play. I think the play would’ve been better without it, but the rest of the dialogue was so excellent that it didn’t seriously damage my overall opinion.
Peter Birnie’s review in the Vancouver Sun said This is shallow, which would’ve been more noticeable had the play not been moving so quickly. His analysis surprised me because I felt very touched by This. I reflected on it and in some ways, he’s right. A lot of the conversation, while very clever, looks at things like those situations when you start telling a story, then realize halfway through that it sounds really boring to everyone listening (a part which really resonated with me). And even on the bigger topics – death and adultery – This doesn’t give us any deep insights. My reading would be that its shallowness was at least partly purposeful, which is why we’re meant to remember Jean-Pierre’s comment that the other characters crises are “dinky” compared to the suffering of the children he treats in Africa. Even if the play wasn’t deep, it was definitely poignant.
One area where I did agree with Birnie was the set design, which held most scenes downstage in an apartment, but created an upstairs for other scenes. Mr. Birnie felt it created distance, but I was more bothered by the way it changed the acoustics, breaking a bit of the illusion by the fact that characters’ voices resonated differently depending on whether they were upstairs or downstairs.
So if you’re around Vancouver in the next 10 days, I highly recommend This. And if you’re elsewhere, hopefully a production will be coming to a theatre near you!