April 11th, 2011

This by Melissa James Gibson: Main Street Theater

This is probably not a show you’ll want to see on a first date, or even a second one. It’s a bit too honest about the fact that desire and misfortune don’t automatically disperse after the exchange of rings and vows. This is a show to see with your long term better half, your best friend, or your buddy who appreciates sardonic wit and double entendres. This, by Melissa James Gibson is Main Street Theater’s latest success.

Under the artistic direction of Rebecca Greene Udden, Main Street Theater consistently churns out quality productions. Their two locations allow them the flexibility to produce family friendly shows such as Hank the Cow Dog and Bunnicula as well as a “New and Now Series” that features plays that have yet to receive wide exposure such as “Or,” and the upcoming “I Am Barbie.” Their seasons are diverse and ambitious, with a thoughtful little something for everyone.

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This is a regional premier at Main Street Theater’s Rice Village location, a venue I’m particularly partial to with its limited seating and theatre in the round format. After a successful off-Broadway run in 2009 and being selected as a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, This has fallen into the capable hands of veteran director Steve Garfinkel, who clearly respects his material and crafts a lyrical comedy that is light on the romance, heavy on the intimacy.

The play opens up on the scene of a small gathering of friends and the suggestion of a party game. Jane (Carolyn Johnson) doesn’t like games, and I’m with her. I clench, expecting some forced interaction constructed to establish character histories. I anticipate a lazy literary device, the dialogue kiss of death. But this is to be the first and last time that I underestimate Melissa James Gibson’s scripting abilities. Mere moments into the first scene, it’s clear that I’m hearing the lines of a playwright enamored with language and the flexibility of words. Jane has suffered a tragedy “not even a year ago” or “an entire year ago,” depending on who’s telling the story. The quick-witted Alan (Sean Patrick Judge) questions the phrase “getting the baby down” for the night, claiming that it sounds like the parents’ attempt to oppress their infant. Even the party game itself consists of rules centered around the characters’ use of language and the effects of questions and responses. Each line necessitates the line that follows; nothing is forced. This is a damn good script.

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Daria James steals the first scene with her portrayal of Marrell, the hostess and a new mother dependent on signs to direct people through her home and her life, a woman obsessed with the proper usage (and pronunciation) of water filtration systems. She breezes through the room, playing matchmaker between her old friend Jane and group newcomer Jean-Pierre (Justin Doran), while still managing to verbally demasculinize her husband, Tom (Mark Roberts).

Tom and Jane are immediately established as the two characters most in need of connection. Jane is resistant to romantic set-ups and frustrated with the pity that her recent tragedy elicits in the people around her. Tom is discouraged in his role as the eternal blue-collared outsider to the artistic (somewhat elitist) clique he has married into. So naturally, Tom and Jane take the only logical step. (Logical, that is, for ennui-ridden, retired hipsters creeping up on middle age.) They have an affair.

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Carolyn Johnson balances the turmoil of a grieved and guilty character with absolute brilliance. Jane, described by her friends as a poet and by herself as a “standardized test proctor” is played as a perfect blend of a sympathetic figure and a self-pitying mess. Benign conversations between Marrell and Jane become piercing with the tension of a hidden betrayal. And as the script continues to soar with a self-aware analysis of dialogue, the irony grows thick as we realize that in This, as in life, the most important sentences are the ones we just don’t have the courage to mutter.

I’m not one for spoilers. I hate reading them and I do my best to avoid writing them. So I’ll simply say that the conflicts between the members of this love triangle are eventually revealed and resolved. All is not made right, as this is not a play for those who expect and desire fairy tale endings. But as Jane’s climactic declaration that “death must be stopped” reminds us; life must go on. This is often our only assurance.

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But wait, didn’t I mention that This is a comedy? So what’s with the affairs, the unresolved grief, the angst? Humor is consistent throughout the play, despite the weighty subject matter, as Gibson’s script and Garfinkel’s direction continue to stress the idiosyncrasies of everyday language. Alan, the obligatory gay friend of the group, personifies this device with his clever speeches, such as the one that bemoans his sense of helplessness which people “now find annoying, cloying, all the –oyings.” And just in case the audience fails to pick up on the walking metaphor, Alan is also a mnemonist, which means that he can recall every word of every conversation he’s ever heard. I now realize that this is what every relationship dinged by miscommunication needs: a mnemonist to act as mediator. Sean Patrick Judge’s wry timing and subtlety in the role of Alan make for a wholly developed character that provides more than mere comic relief. Alan is involved, he cares, and while he’s facing a similar midlife crisis to the aforementioned love trianglers, he chooses to meet his internal battles armed with wit instead of whining. Justin Doran provides added levity as Jean-Pierre, a free spirited “doctor without borders” who brings fresh perspective to the more petty squabbles among the group. These lighter characters, combined with observations such as “I hate the word ‘blog’ – it sounds like a large accumulation of snot” keep the play light and laughable.

This is a gift to every wordsmith and card-carrying literati member. This is a charmer and a solid triumph for Main Street Theater. This is a good one.

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This
By Melissa James Gibson
Directed by Steve Garfinkel

Main Street Theater – Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd, Houston, TX 77005

April 7-24
Tickets $26-$40

[All photo credits to RicOrnelProductions.com]

— Kerri

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