Melissa James Gibson always seems to be writing about what’s not been happening to her characters. In“[sic]”, her subjects were young New York dilettantes, filling their undistinguished days with witty commentary on their own failure to thrive. In “Current Nobody,” the gap she played with was the one in a modern family, modeled on Odysseus’s in “The Odyssey,” that widened painfully with the long absence of a parent working in far-off lands.
The playwright’s fascination with what goes missing in contemporary life continues in “This,” her smart, urbane, deceptively slim comedy about loss and the unintended consequences of premature death. Courtesy of five engaging actors assembled on Round House Theatre’s main stage in Bethesda, director Ryan Rilette finds a gently accommodating tone for Gibson’s exploration of the ironic, wide-ranging and unforeseeable aftershocks of a traumatic event, months after it has occurred.
With its somewhat curious segues, its intermingling of familiar situations and fanciful detailing — one of the characters, for instance, is a professional mnemonist, of all things — “This” presents challenges to an audience trying to adjust to the author’s narrative personality. The story is not hard to follow; in fact, “This” concerns in large part one of the most banal of dramatic topics, marital fidelity. But there is a lot of nuance to Gibson’s characters that is not ideally digestible in the mere 95 minutes we spend with the play, and thus “This” is one of those rare evenings that might benefit from a bit more elucidation. In particular, the final scene leaves the impression that we’re being rushed out the theater doors without a fully realized sense of dramatic completion.
It’s true enough that life tends not to provide tidy endings, and one of the rewards of “This” is that it refuses to supply them. Perhaps something, though, is yet to be fulfilled in the play’s closing moments by Lise Bruneau, who, as the widowed Jane, offers up one of her most beguilingly complex and emotional performances to date. In this last scene, she’s required to make a major psychological adjustment that doesn’t quite register as authentic, and as a result Rilette’s production feels as if it makes an unsatisfying final pivot.
Much of what unfolds over the preceding 90 minutes, though, is redolent of Gibson’s wisdom about how we try to order and cultivate our obligations, loyalties and responsibilities, and how easily these efforts can be sabotaged by the very people we care for most. New parents Tom (Todd Scofield) and Marrell (Felicia Curry) throw a dinner party to set up the still-grieving, 40-ish Jane with Jean-Pierre (Will Gartshore), a dashing Frenchman working for the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. Jean-Pierre stirs the others’ myopia rather than compassion, however; Jane and Marrell’s old friend Alan (Michael Glenn), for example, is at once attracted to Jean-Pierre and reminded by his presence of his own meager accomplishment, as an entertainer with the ability to repeat conversations verbatim.
Glenn, a member of the splendid ensemble that made Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s “Clybourne Park” so memorable, excels as the glib, restless Alan, who’s so desperately trying to latch on to happiness that he only succeeds in illuminating how distant from that achievement he remains. Gartshore capably assumes the air of Gallic diffidence that comes across to some Americans as arrogance. And for Scofield’s and Curry’s expertly acidic Tom and Marrell, he triggers reminders of their unsettled feelings about each other, and about Jane.
The sense of all these lives in disorienting orbit around one another is mirrored superbly by designer James Kronzer in a set of revolving turntables that transports us from Tom and Marrell’s flat to the nightclub where Marrell sings Peter Eldridge’s bluesy numbers to the front door of Jane’s apartment that becomes the threshold of the play’s most disastrous encounter.
Gibson has a trove of funny observations about the things that vex us about each other: Marrell’s insufferable side emerges in her compulsiveness about the maintenance of the water filters in her Brita pitcher, and Tom’s peevishness comes to the fore in his effort to antagonize his wife by bringing their infant son to Marrell’s club. It is left to Jean-Pierre, exhausted by his job and appalled by the small storms whipped into hurricanes by these entitled folk, to set them all straight. In one terse observation about the pile of medical documents awaiting his perusal, he manages to put into useful perspective how pointlessly the characters obsess over what ultimately isn’t very significant.
As a title, “This” may sound disconcertingly vague. But it actually evokes something that feels quite right about the characters Gibson so intelligently conjures, and their belief that their own mess is the only one that matters.
by Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Ryan Rilette. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; original score and sound, Eric Shimelonis; original music, Peter Eldridge; assistant director, Rachel Zampelli. About 95 minutes. Tickets, $10 to $45. Through Nov. 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-644-1100.