What’s not to like about “This,” a dark little friendship dramedy by Obie and Kesselring Prize-winning playwright (for “[sic]”) Melissa James Gibson? The characters — a tight group of friends who play well together despite their private griefs and unaired secrets — are personable and, in scribe’s snappy dialogue, extremely articulate. Under Daniel Aukin’s direction, the performances in this character-driven play are also virtually flawless. But here’s the rub: there’s no true “this” about “This,” which has little action and less plot, no character revelation worth the wait, and ultimately no cohesive point to emerge from all the clever palaver.
Play opens on a small dinner party at the apartment of Marrell (Eisa Davis) and Tom (Darren Pettie), an interracial couple in their late 30s, with a new baby tucked away offstage. Despite the obvious marital discord, there’s an easy camaraderie between them and Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) and Jane (Julianne Nicholson), long-time friends since college.
The stranger in this company is Jean-Pierre (insouciant Louis Cancelmi), a political activist working for Doctors Without Borders. His thoughts focused on the human rights conference that has brought him to the city, the distracted French medic seems not to realize he’s been invited to dinner as a date for widowed Jane, who is still grieving for the husband who died last year.
Which is just as well, since Jane has no more interest in him than he with her. Whatever sexual attraction is at work in the room, it’s mainly coming from Marrell, Gibson’s textbook study of a neglected wife.
Not that the good doctor picks up on that, either, or on the longing looks he’s getting from Alan. Under Aukin’s understated helming, the sexual vibes in the room are so delicately plucked by Davis (“Passing Strange”) and Fitzgerald, they barely make a wave.
With the conversational witticisms flying thick and fast, and Jean-Pierre installed as oblivious catalyst, Gibson makes smart use of an unintentionally cruel party game to center our attention on her true subject — the unspoken and unresolved grief that is crippling Jane.
Nicholson (highly visible as Detective Megan Wheeler on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) makes brave and quietly moving work of Jane, whose unhappiness goes so deep she can’t bring herself to touch it.
It’s a full-bodied performance that starts somewhere around the haunted eyes and travels down to fingers so tense they make little fists.
But for all the tenderness that has gone into both the writing and the portrayal of this woman, there’s precious little to be learned from the characterization. And in the end, little impact on the lives of the well-meaning friends who don’t know enough to leave her alone to face her grief in her own good time.