Opening Nights: This

Secret adultery at the Rep.

"This" is the euphemism for what Jane and Tom did when alone together. See, Jane's husband died a year ago, and Tom is married to her best friend, Marrell; so no way should "this" be happening. But like the melba round under a canapé, secret adultery provides a sound foundation for dazzling verbal acrobatics and well-observed social insights in Melissa James Gibson's 2009 dramedy about 40-year-olds settling for the lives they're now stuck with. It takes a few minutes to warm to this erudite brat pack. Poet Jane (chisel-cheeked Cheyenne Casebier), Marrell (April Yvette Thompson), and their close college friend Alan (Nick Garrison) hyperanalyze in lit-crit fashion every thought that crosses their minds. It's a habit that rubs off on blue-collar Tom (Hans Altwies) and the pragmatic Jean-Pierre (Ryan Shams), a Frenchman with Doctors Without Borders whom Marrell is trying to set up romantically with Jane. All these characters obsess over language and cultural assumptions, as though clear articulation could save them from the nameless death that claimed Jane's husband. Thankfully, some of the ample humor is nonverbal, stemming from character (maternal Marrell stuffs a whole ice cream cone in her mouth to get baby wipes for a spill) and from situations (you'd think the pack was watching a murder in progress when Jean-Pierre lights a cigarette). Character nuance and group dynamics are more compelling than the affair, whose perfunctory revelation feels anticlimactic—a device forcing Jane to confront her grief. Gibson leaves it to the audience to decide what if any significance there is to underlying issues of race (most characters are white, except Marrell and Jane's dead husband), class (Tom is a carpenter), and sexuality. Alan, a drunk gay mnemologist (professional rememberer), steals many of the scenes, so outsized are his ego, ambitions, and insecurities. Yet Garrison's greatest moment comes when he's listening to a taped replay of a mundane conversation that he recalled verbatim to a live audience. The heartbreak in his face while listening to the minutiae of life is more powerful than all the sophisticated bantering of the play's quintet, an irony that the highly canny Gibson has built into This. "This," Jean-Pierre says of the affair, "is dinky." But the play overall is great fun.

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