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Theater Review: A Laughing, Crying Take on Midlife’s Messiness



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

This.

It isn’t the most evocative word, yet somehow “this,” in addition to heading an untold number of Facebook posts, has also become the title of a play.

Now in production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, This charts an episode in the lives of four friends who are crossing the threshold of midlife and facing the reassessment common to those years. Mortality, love, status, satisfaction — all are turned over by a talented cast in a play replete with witty banter and heartfelt conversations.

This starts with a game. Jane is visiting the apartment of old friends Tom and Marrell, who are determined to show Jane a good time, even though their new baby sleeps only 15 minutes at a stretch. The setting, the program tells us, is “a major city, probably New York.” Also present is Alan, another college friend who bustles around firing quips and scouring the premises for stray drops of alcohol. Jean-Pierre, a late-arriving Frenchman with whom Marrell is trying to set Jane up, is a counterweight to the proceedings, an altruistic “Doctor Without Borders.”

The game works like this: Jane (Celeste Ciulla) is to leave the room and everyone else is meant to think up a story that she must then guess. Except the rules aren’t quite as Jane was led to believe, the story she starts inquiring about hits too close to home and Jane, who was widowed only a year before, storms out. Back in college or shortly thereafter, such a game might have seemed fun, but in the shadow of death, which is where midlife starts, jokes are harder to come by.

Like its brief title, the play, by Melissa James Gibson, is compact, introducing the entire dramatis personae in the first scene while letting their links to each other and their discontents unfold over the course of the two acts.

Tom (Paul West) and Marrell (Melissa Murray) are stalled in their work and their relationship, or feel that way. They’re too busy bickering over who changes the filter in their water pitcher to approach one another for intimacy. Tom tells Jane when he stops at her apartment to apologize for the tedious game that he feels like “the guy who never gets past the door.”

Jane, who is raising a teenage daughter on her own after the death of her husband, Roy, has grown tired of hearing people’s apologies for her situation. She seems ready to move on, but grief doesn’t work that way, and she lurches back and forth, carrying on while feeling like a failure and a wreck.

The game is a demonstration of dramatic irony, in which everyone knows the rules, but Jane doesn’t. Soon after, an act of infidelity leaves Jane holding those cards in conversations with her friends. This makes for some amusing dialogue, and a messy conclusion.

A lot of this ground is awfully well-trodden, and at times, I found it a bit hard to care about the travails of these relatively well-off urbanites. At one point, when Act 2 is at its messiest, someone asks Jean-Pierre, who works in Africa, what he thinks and he notes that all of the turmoil the characters face is nothing compared to the suffering of the lives documented in the case file he’s holding.

Why should we care, then? So what if Alan (Matt Crabtree), who’s drawn as a borderline stereotype: a gay man who’s thwarted in life and love, is questioning his career as a mnemonist, someone capable of remembering all the details of his life, whether he wants to or not? So what if we can’t tell whether he’s genuine when he says he’s going to Africa with Doctors Without Borders?

The answer is because This is warmly human and rich with the back and forth of contemporary American life, in all its ridiculousness. This is the game of our late-empire economy and we all have to play it as best we can.

Director Bill Coons has chosen to stage This in the round, a format to which both the play and Whitney Hall are well suited. And he has found a solid cast that manages to make Gibson’s challenging wordplay not merely intelligible but inviting. As Jane, Ciulla accesses a well of vulnerability without sacrificing the character’s determination to carry on. Jane’s grief, along with Jean-Pierre’s earthy good cheer, help ground the play, as does Tom and Marrell’s parenthood.

West, a Vermont native who has built his acting career outside New England, brings a down-to-earth ease to his portrayal of Tom, and as Marrell, Murray conveys a new mother’s fatigue and frustration. Marrell is a singer-songwriter, so Murray also has the extra work of singing the show’s original songs, by Peter Eldridge.

As Alan, Crabtree plays a character who tosses out most of the play’s best lines, but Gibson has given the character enough gravity to keep him from seeming unmoored. A scene in which Alan appears on a TV show to demonstrate his astounding memory is at once uncanny and a bit sad, as Alan has allowed his life to be defined by a character trait over which he has no control. Forgetting, and the need for it, is one of the play’s undercurrents.

Kevin Ramos-Glew makes his Upper Valley stage debut as Jean-Pierre, a role that doesn’t give him much to do beyond asking questions of the four old friends. Still, he plays the outlander against whom the other characters can measure themselves with a convincing joie de vivre.

Diversity has become a watchword in Upper Valley theater, thanks in part to the efforts of Jarvis Antonio Green, whose JAG Productions focuses on the African-American experience. It’s good to see another play that features an African-American character, Marrell, with no fanfare. And yet, this is the second show in a row I’ve seen at Shaker Bridge that’s set mainly in a New York apartment (after last season’s 4,000 Miles). I’m not sure there’s a conclusion to be drawn, but it raises questions about whether American theater is able to express the lives of people outside its major cities.

Still, This is an enjoyable night of theater, regardless of the title.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.