In his 2009 New York Times review, Charles Isherwood wrote that with her play This, Melissa James Gibson “graduates into the theatrical big leagues with this beautifully conceived, confidently executed and wholly accessible work.”
Please consider this. Take some of the DFW region’s most talented, experienced, versatile actors and cast them as a tight 2011 ensemble at Stage West in Melissa Gibson’s play that earned this review in 2009: http://theater.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/theater/reviews/04this.html?pagewanted=1
Add to this mix one of the region’s leading directors, Jerry Russell, a creative, strong professional artist many in the region aspire to emulate. This production ought to soar.
So what happened to this This?
All characters in This are experiencing painful mid-life crises. They work out their respective angst through Albee-like hostility, fantasy dreams, guilt trips and inadvertent adultery. Female protagonist Jane finds her life overrun by grief due to the death of her “less than perfect” husband. Sleepwalking numbly through every scene, Morgana Shaw conveys the comprehensive, gut-wrenching depth of Jane’s grief while keeping her interaction with the other characters at a carefully modulated arm’s length. Jane’s unintentional “mistake” vividly fuels her self-torture. Shaw’s cohesive depiction of Jane’s suffering manages to over-ride the production’s shortcomings, in an almost defiant demonstration of acting willpower.
Randy Pearlman as Alan, a wisecracking, hard-boozing, gay friend from college days, seems to draw upon Olympian resources to define and maintain a consistently interesting portrayal through the nebulous confusion that challenges the production. Alan is blessed and cursed with “total recall”. The reality Pearlman creates with Alan as a ‘performing’ guest on a national television talk show (a la Leno or Letterman), responding to a non-corporeal host, is the most clearly defined, emotionally revealing scene in the show. He conveys Alan’s ennui, his desperate loneliness, low self-esteem and shame at his pointless existence as a version of a “trained seal”, while keeping the repartee fast, bright and oh so clever. Sheer stage presence, innate timing, and amazing willpower.
This is highly intense and poetic. It requires massive focus; it demands intimacy and clarity. The play’s characters live a New York elbow-rubbing, high-rise lifestyle; it should feel tight and close, convey their existence’s claustrophobia. Instead, the set design and production vision wander all over the place in confused disharmony in Stage West’s realization. They serve only to undermine any coherent presentation of the play and hamstring the honest attempts of the ensemble to perform effectively. Far upstage center sit brightly painted flats, cartoon-like, stylized depictions of a New York cityscape. They set no mood nor reinforce in any way any element or moment in the play. They distract one’s eye and attention, seem like last minute add-ons. They look like they belong in something else. Clumping scattered scenes across Stage West’s wide playing space diffuses the focus and energy of the work, gives the performance a rambling, indistinct quality.
One scene takes place in a jazz bar. The performer/ pianist, played by Rhianna Mack, is blocked far downstage right, all by herself. Half-open pocket doors behind her fail to frame or define the center stage space at all and don’t block off the jumble of previous scenes’ set furniture and props still visible upstage, half-lit, for no apparent reason. It’s a conceptual no man’s land. Downstage left, sit other actors as jazz bar patrons. The separated blocking furthers no thematic aspect of the play, only makes the actors as bar patrons look like they are performing a collegiate acting exercise where they ‘pretend’ to sit in a jazz bar. New York jazz bars aren’t spread out, cavernous spaces; they are tight little hole in the wall venues. When Mack’s character as jazz stylist stops playing, instead of walking directly across the stage to join her friends in the ‘audience’, she meanders way upstage and through the jumbled debris from the other scenes en route to joining them, to no evident purpose. It’s very difficult to engage with This’ plot, dialogue or characters in so messy and incoherent a visual reality.
I have seen masterful set design at Stage West, superior, professional artistry that boldly reinforces and sets off a production. What a disappointment with this This. I respect what the fine acting ensemble attempts to do and how well directed specific scenes are. Stage West’s production concept and its execution make Melissa Gibson’s This feel like it’s being performed underwater. Pity, this.
The acting ensemble includes: Morgana Shaw, Randy Pearlman, Ashley Wood, Chip Wood and Rhianna Mack.
Stage West’s production of Melissa Gibson’s This runs through February 13.