This is really about that

BETC stages Melissa James Gibson’s ‘This’

Michael Ensminger

Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is wrapping up its eighth season and true to its reputation for producing regional and world premieres of new plays, it’s currently presenting the regional premiere of Melissa James Gibson’s This, in the Carson Space at The Dairy Center for the Arts. The play had its world premiere at Playwright’s Horizons in New York City, an institution with a great reputation for developing new plays. BETC has done an admirable job with the play’s regional debut.

The audience enters the theatre to Shaun Albrechtson’s gorgeous set of an upscale apartment in New York City that uses the sometimes awkward height of the Carson space very well. Director Christy Montour-Larson uses the set to stage multiple locations, which keeps the play moving along at a crisp pace, and gives This the feel of Thirtysomething meets Friends.

The quality production design is also showcased in Charlotte Ballard’s costumes, which tastefully evoke contemporary life in the big city.

But strong as those elements are, they ultimately don’t cover up some of the flaws of the play.

The story begins at a dinner party hosted by a married couple with a newborn who are looking to blow off some much needed stream. The new addition to the family, and his inability to “sleep for more than 15 minutes” has put a lot of strain on their relationship. They play a party game that their guest Jane, trying to be a good sport, goes along with. At the party we also meet Alan, the couple’s caustic friend, and a late arriving Frenchman, Pierre, who has been invited to be set up with Jane. Soon we discover Tom, the husband and father of a newborn, has feelings for Jane. Their infidelity sets most of the play’s action in motion. Tom and Jane’s dalliance seems to come out of nowhere, before the playwright has created empathy for these characters. This flaw ultimately causes me to wonder, “why am I interested in these people?” 

The short version is that despite Gibson’s full deployment of her talents for dialogue, the play falters when its plot takes a turn towards the melodramatic.

Gibson’s previous works are often described as quirky comedies and the same instincts for comedy and use of language that earned that reputation are on full display in This, a big part of why the show had a popular run off- Broadway.

The rapid-fire dialogue and pacing brings the production in at a lean 90 minutes, a saving grace for some of the melodrama. The expert use of pacing, tempo and rhythm are partic ularly evident in the first scene, which crackles with overlapping dialogue. The play gets off to a roaring start but fades down the stretch as the lack of a character to root for lowers the audience’s emotional investment.

But beyond the crackling dialogue, one thing that might keep an audience hooked is the many fine acting performances. Ghandia Johnson is compelling as Merrell, the embittered and vulnerable wife. Jessica Robblee is able to combine likeability and intensity in the complex character of Jane. Jane has the biggest emotional arc in the play and her entrance is one of the play’s biggest surprises. Michael Morgan walks the ambiguities of his character with a mysterious nuance. David R. Russell adds a jolt of fresh energy as Pierre. As Alan, Josh Hartwell delivers the most interesting performance. Hartwell uses a cynical delivery that works well with the play’s dialogue. He provides a lot of the play’s humor and his character frequently stands out as the play’s most interesting character. Gibson’s done a great job crafting this character, but it speaks to the play’s lack of focus that a character who spends most of his time on the emotional sidelines of the play is the one who captures our attention.

Still, I was impressed by This’s production value and the work of the director, designers and cast and overall, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of This is an enjoyable and amusing night of theatre.