Thursday, December 3, 2009



By Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Daniel Aukin. Playwrights Horizons. (CLOSED)

Critics for the most part applaud Melissa James Gibson's witty writing for This, a play about a 30-something New Yorker dealing with the death of her husband, though a few critics write that some of the characters are undeveloped. As is often the case, critics see certain aspects of the play in a different light. Variety's Marilyn Stasio is frustrated by the lack of plot development, but this uncertainty is exactly what New York Post's Elizabeth Vincentelli likes about the play.

Backstage A+
(David Sheward) Gibson wisely keeps them from turning into whiners and gives them such expressive zingers as "I hate the word 'blog'; it sounds like a large accumulation of snot" and "I have no problem with self-involvement, except in others." They fight their battles of raging emotions with words as weapons. The vague title refers to the uncertain state of affairs created by their messy feelings. "What do we do about this?" asks Jane when Tom reveals his longing for her. Fortunately, the playwright is as specific in dealing with her characters' inner conflicts as her title is general. Director Daniel Aukin balances the razor-sharp observational comedy with naturalistic staging. Louisa Thompson's lived-in set, which looks like you could move right in, contributes to the lifelike atmosphere.

CurtainUp A+
(Elyse Sommer) Unlike sic and Suitcase which were staged at SoHoRep, a favorite with downtown theater goers, This introduces Melissa James Gibson to a broader audience at Playwrights Horizons' larger and considerably more comfortable Main Stage. Fortunately, the playwright has made the move uptown together with her SoHo Rep director Daniel Aukin and design team. Much of what makes This enjoyable to watch again owes a debt to their high energy, creative staging. With a larger playing area to work with, Louisa Thompson has created a very detailed and versatile loft apartment that accommodates such varied locations as Marrell and Tom's home, a park, the hallway of Jane's apartment, a jazz club and a TV studio — all mostly by means of some moving panels and a portable door. With the help of Thompson's evocatively lit set (kudos to Mark Frey) and by having the actors move the props as needed, Mr. Aukin achieves the scene to scene shifts quite seamlessly and without time consuming blackouts.

The New York Times A
(Charles Isherwood) The author of the quirky, cult-appeal comedies “[sic]” and “Suitcase,” both seen at the downtown powerhouse Soho Rep, Ms. Gibson graduates into the theatrical big leagues with this beautifully conceived, confidently executed and wholly accessible work, which is not just her finest to date but also the best new play to open Off Broadway this fall. Its confused but lovable characters are drawn with a fine focus and a piercing emotional depth; the dialogue sparkles with exchanges as truthful as they are clever; and as directed by Daniel Aukin, Ms. Gibson’s longtime collaborator, and performed by a flawless cast, the play’s delicate pace, richly patterned wordplay and undercurrent of rue combine to cast a moving spell that lingers in the memory, like a sad-sweet pop song whose chorus you can’t shake. This is entirely appropriate for a play about how we process love, hurt and loss by concocting tidy stories to recall our experience, or reshape it — and sometimes to frame a happier future too.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) "This," which opened Wednesday at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, is a startling work, canny in the way it slowly draws you into the lives of five people creeping through middle-age. The writing is intellectually quirky yet emotionally satisfying. And if you think the subject matter sounds maudlin, don't worry. "This" is surprisingly tough-minded and funny, too.

Newsroom New Jersey A
(Michael Sommers) Up-and-coming author of the Obie-winning "[sic]" and "Suitcase," Gibson crafts very amusing, very actable conversation that somehow sounds like everyday currency. From a funny verbal party game in the first scene that neatly engages viewers and sets up the story, all the way through to a heartfelt closing monologue by Jane, Gibson's quick, cunning way with words is striking. Of course, viewers who don't care to listen will simply find "This" to be talky.

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) A large part of the play's appeal is that you're never quite sure what it's about or where it's going. The prospective romance between Jane (Julianne Nicholson) and Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi) is quickly dropped. The attraction between married Tom (Darren Pettie) and Jane is revealed, then put on the back burner, though it may or may not have lasting consequences. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), craving love, steps to the forefront -- until we go back to Jane, who realized she never properly mourned her husband.

Theatermania B+
(Brian Scott Lipton) While each of the actors adds an invaluable element to the production, This does rest on Nicholson's slender shoulders. There are a few times when one isn't entirely sure if the actress is skilfully underplaying the part and showing us Jane's disconnectedness or if she hasn't grasped the import of what Gibson is trying to convey. Still, she handles the character's most crucial moments with a true sense of what it means to be a human being whose moral compass may have temporarily pointed in the wrong direction, but which is sure to return to its correct position.

Entertainment Weekly B+
(Tanner Stransky) This is a beautifully written, intelligent, and funny two-hour descent into the disarray of life. In some ways, Gibson unearths the plight of thirtysomethings in NYC much as the musical Avenue Q did for the city's twentysomethings — with the same bawdy humor. The subject matter — from the search for love to raising children — should hit home for any feeling person who isn't sleepwalking through life. But the way the friends act and relate — often with overly witty word choices and debates, reminiscent of the way Rory and Lorelai talked in Gilmore Girls — tends to feel inauthentic and fictional.

The Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Occasionally, Gibson contrives a touch too baldly—her tormented souls just happen to have as their best friend a gay memory expert—or overworks a verbal tactic. Long stretches of beautifully vivid writing fall into brief gray patches of repetition, which might easily have been trimmed out except that her director, Daniel Aukin, was apparently fixated on some peripheral, and thoroughly superfluous, fancy business involving set pieces. Luckily, these minor visual nuisances can be ignored, since Aukin hasn't neglected his central task: getting from his cast five uniformly affecting performances, rich, detailed, and sensibly unshowy.

Time Out New York B-
(Helen Shaw) Oh, how the subversive can be subverted. Melissa James Gibson, author of the delectably weird plays [sic] and Suitcase, finally gets the glitzy production she deserves—and pop! The air goes out of her oddness. Did she deliberately turn her hand to more conventional fare? Or did some alchemy of uptown production convert her linguistic fairy gold into dross? To be fair, Gibson’s relationship drama This is leaden only in places, and joy can still be had from her delicate, pointilist dialogue. But considered in its entirety, This could easily be mistaken for any number of interchangeable thirtysomething-inspired thats.

Newsday C+
(Linda Winer) These people apologize constantly and are always complaining about being sleep deprived. The friends include a gay Jewish sardonic sidekick, a stock character we haven't seen in weeks, and a black woman who stops the action twice to sing plaintive pseudo-Laura Nyro songs. Gibson still writes articulate people, but, this time, her story and its emotional content feel both scattered and slick.

Talkin' Broadway C-
(Matthew Murray) Eleven years after its final episode aired, Seinfeld amazingly maintains its grip on our cultural language. The latest example, This, Melissa James Gibson’s new play at Playwrights Horizons, is one of the baldest yet. Paying adoring homage in every way except the deep seriousness of its underlying intent, it captures exactly that classic TV show’s super-slick aesthetic but not much of its magic... Gibson has chiseled some brilliant jokes and repartee into her play, but they never quite fit comfortably within the plot’s darker, starker dramatic framework. The loss, the anger, and the disintegrating trust that drive these people are conducted apart from the comedy, so the two halves are constantly battling rather than helping each other attain new heights. If pressed, I’d say the drama loses, because it has the furthest to go. But so many of the gags are in-and-out, two-second affairs, it can’t be said there are any real winners.

Variety D+
(Marilyn Stasio) What's not to like about "This," a dark little friendship dramedy by Obie and Kesselring Prize-winning playwright (for "[sic]") Melissa James Gibson? The characters -- a tight group of friends who play well together despite their private griefs and unaired secrets -- are personable and, in scribe's snappy dialogue, extremely articulate. Under Daniel Aukin's direction, the performances in this character-driven play are also virtually flawless. But here's the rub: there's no true "this" about "This," which has little action and less plot, no character revelation worth the wait, and ultimately no cohesive point to emerge from all the clever palaver. F+
(Robert Feldberg) Except for Jean-Pierre, who's presented as a role model of passion and purpose, everyone is anxious, dissatisfied and confused about where life is taking them. Their situation as representatives of a generation isn't terribly original or stimulating. And as individuals, they're so sketchily drawn they barely have identities beyond their names. Director Daniel Aukin warrants blame for not integrating the original moments more vividly into the rest of the play. He can also be called out for the lackluster performances, although Gibson's periodic attacks of the cutes certainly don't help the actors.

Lighting & Sound America F+
(David Barbour) For the rest of two acts, the four characters get together in various combinations for conversation, usually with drinks, while Jane worries about the ticking bomb of her adulterous secret. This would be fine if the talk were more amusing or the people more interesting. Too much of the time, however, the dialogue doesn't get beyond low-level cocktail chatter. "I hate that the word 'blog' sounds like a large accumulation of snot," says Jane. "My career is an American movie and what I've just now realized is it wants to be a foreign film," muses Alan. "I want to pick your brain," somebody asks. "Sounds messy," is the reply. This approach is especially unhelpful in trying to illuminate the reasons why the characters are stuck in neutral. "Death is such a killjoy," says Jane, who can't quite let her deceased husband go. Alan, who capriciously decides he wants to be a humanitarian -- probably because he thinks Jean-Pierre is pretty hot -- wonders, "How do you break into doing good?" When Jane and Tom's little secret is finally let out, the impact is fairly nil, because everybody is too busy trying to crack wise.

Bloomberg News F
(John Simon) Worse than a play that is merely poor is one that is also annoying. Such a play was Melissa James Gibson’s “[sic]” and such now at Playwrights Horizons is her new one, “This.” You may find the title suspect, but what else can you call a play that is about nothing? Gibson reveals herself as a master of cuteness, smugness and pretentiousness. “This” begins with a kind of word game played by the five characters... The word game is stretched beyond our tolerance, as is everything else here. There is infinite repetition, talk about and around talk, jejune word play, not very funny verbal one- upmanship and the least possible action, most of it unconvincing.

Backstage A+ 14; CurtainUp A+ 14; The New York Times A 13; AP A 13; Newsroom New Jersey A 13; New York Post A- 12; Theatermania B+ 11; EW B+ 11; The Village Voice B+ 11; TONY B- 9; Newsday C+ 8; Talkin' Broadway C- 6; Variety D+ 5; F+ 2; Lighting & Sound America F+ 2; Bloomberg News F 1; TOTAL: 145/16 = 9.06 (B-)


elyse sommer said... (Elyse Sommer) also thought this an A+ very welcome uptown move by a heretofore downtown writer and creative team. see, review at

Anonymous said...

NY Times review by Isherwood is now posted online and it's a rave.