— Photo of Megan Follows by George Whiteside
There’s something in the air in the USA these days. And if its writers are to be trusted, it sure ain’t happiness. Whether the recession is to blame or Sarah Palin or the general decline of the Empire, last week’s back-to-back openings of Craig Wright’s The Pavilion and Melissa James Gibson’s This tell us that the American generation looking at 40 is suffering some bad pre-mid-life blues.
An expatriate Vancouverite living in New York, Gibson has a great ear for the obsessive verbal habits of New Yorkers: their tendency to worry ideas like a dog a bone, to pick at language for its multiple meanings, to psychoanalyze themselves and others the way Vancouverites dissect the play of the Canucks. Her play, set in a slightly grungy Manhattan apartment designed by Alison Green, has some terrific scenes and excellent comic moments. But it feels as if the anomie of her characters’ lives became the structural principle of her script, which drifts badly in the second half. The strong cast of Amiel Gladstone’s Playhouse production fortunately showcases the play’s solid comic spine.
Jane (Megan Follows) and jazz singer Marrell (Karen Holness) have been best friends since college and remain tight with their cynical gay Jewish pal, Alan (a hilarious Dmitry Chepovetsky, whose paranoid riff on the identity question “What do you do?” concludes, “I drink a lot, I read a lot, and I jerk off with Olympian frequency”). Marrell has married blue-collar carpenter Tom (Todd Thomson) and they’ve just had a kid, but their marriage has gone sour. Jane, raising an adolescent daughter (offstage) by herself, hasn’t really dealt with the death of her husband a year earlier. Marrell has brought along debonair French Doctor Without Borders Jean-Pierre (Fabrice Grover) to set him up with Jane. Things don’t work out too well, although lessons are learned—Jean-Pierre puts their petty personal concerns (“this way of being”) in perspective at the end—and it’s a good bet that the friendships will survive their various strains.
Some of the cleverest parts of the script, in the best sense of the word clever, frame the play. In a great opening scene the friends play a game in which Jane thinks she’s guessing what happened in a story that she’s actually making up herself. Near the end as Marrell and Tom reconstruct an argument, Alan, who was there, corrects their self-serving version of events with his photographic memory (“No, Marrell, what you actually told him was ‘Fuck off and die’”). In between, though, an awful lot of time gets marked, including two scenes where the action just stops for Marrell to play piano and sing a couple of not very good songs, although Holness has a lovely jazz voice.
Kudos to the Playhouse for staging the Canadian premiere of This. It’s a bracing and amusing reminder that being young (yeah, 40 looks young from where I’m sitting) and American isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.