Actors are routinely advised to drive characters toward health. If your guy is drunk, he should be intent on staying sober; if you’re depressed, strive to maintain some joy. Yet in the Kirk Douglas Theater production of Melissa James Gibson’s “This,” helmer Daniel Aukin has Saffron Burrows’ widow of one year practically pressed into amber with her grief, a choice which pulls much believability away from an undeniably talented, but already diffuse and rambling script.
The play centers on a quartet of one-time college friends, now knee deep in middle aged dismay over their lives’ unanticipated emptiness. Tom (Darren Pettie) is a carpenter surrounded by wood scraps and unfinished projects, while wife Marrell (Eisa Davis) has her own personal construction site going, transforming their apartment (nicely detailed by Louisa Thompson) into a safe zone for their newborn while mindful of the warning signs of a marriage on a precipice.
On the sidelines lounges unhappily gay, unpartnered Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), vaguely braying about “doing good” between snaps and beakers of white wine.
And all walk on eggshells around Jane (Burrows), a discontented schoolteacher unable to part with her husband (literally; his ashes sit in a paper bag on her fridge). Helpful Marrell tries to set her up with the dashing medico Jean-Pierre (Gilles Marini), though his European sexual insouciance and selfless career with Doctors Without Borders seem designed to ratchet up everyone else’s bitterness.
Gibson, who first made a splash with the strange, captivating three-hander “[sic],” can write funny and true, crafting a skein of intimate rhythms and quotable lines. In the promising opening scene, a boozy party game secretly designed as psychodrama cuts too close to the bone to Jane’s despair, demonstrating how pals of long standing can become careless in stepping over friendship’s line.
Yet there’s self-conscious awkwardness too – in the group’s endless tossed-around variations on “I’m sorry” – and contrivance in granting Alan a “photographic memory” for the spoken word, which serves mostly to dredge up, at a critical juncture, a key pre-marital conversation between Marrell and Tom. Certainly there seems increasingly less reason why the vital Jean-Pierre would choose to spend any time at all with these self-absorbed poseurs.
The play’s varying strains never really come together, though it would be interesting to see what would happen if this ensemble’s natural charm could be brought into contact with a Jane whose face wasn’t set into a taut, unreadable Kabuki mask of pain.
It’s one thing to be numbed by grief and quite another to sink into inertia. As Burrows’ voice and manner play the same notes over and over, her friends’ hugs and concern are tough to credit, creating confusion as to what take on contemporary life the artificial “This” is meant to reflect.