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Gen-X meets middle-age madness

Richard Baird, Courtney Corey, Matt Thompson, Judith Scott and Andrew Ableson play friends facing mid-life changes in This at the North Coast Rep.

After watching Melissa James Gibson’s This at the North Coast Rep. I wanted to seclude myself with comfort food and cuddle with the APA’s Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders.

But, before I go any further let me tell you that, including today you’ve still got five more chances to see This at the Rep., including two performances Saturday, April 28 (2 and 8 p.m.).

This’s emotional violence plays out in this extended one-act among its politically correct quintet, make that sextet, lest I forget the off-stage crying baby. Ms. Gibson eventually brings the lifeless infant onstage. It isn’t dead it’s just that the actors do not endow the prop with authentic life. The child’s neglect is emblematic of the clan’s stage 4 narcissism, the toxic baggage carried on its misguided quest for identity.

This could be amusingly played as Woody Allen character sketches. That would require sophistication, an unattainable quality in this production mired in feeble attempts to create a kinesthetic emotional reality.

This cult-appeal comedy revisits Ms. Gibson’s themes of angst in urban emotional isolation and again takes us to present-day Manhattan. Four old friends from college and an inexplicably present French Doctor-Without-Borders meet for drink and banter. A mixed race couple host; Tom, a carpenter, and Marrell, a lackluster lounge singer of pseudo-Laura Nyro songs. Gay alcoholic Alan, a television mnemonist (think Mr. Memory from The 39 Steps), played by Andrew Ableson, a likable actor whose Alan wavers in New York dialect and leans toward a self-conscious performance. Finally there is widowed single mother Jane, a barren poetess turned professional test proctor.

We begin the evening witnessing a psychologically cruel guessing game foisted upon Jane. The group gleefully antagonizes Jane with the guessing sport in which there is no chance of her winning. Her maddening stabs at answers drive the fragile woman out the door. Yet, she agreed to play.

The game serves as a metaphor for Ms. Gibson’s version of life’s futility. Infidelity, latent bereavement, unrequited lust, division of labor in caring for the family pet, child and an old-running cremation urn gag pepper the 90-minute exercise.

Meted out through actionless scenes, emotional cannibalism masquerades as well-meaning advice. If a therapist were present to referee, the characters might solicit a degree of empathy from us.

What strikes late in the evening is the Generation-X-ers resistant descent into middle-age. They’d rather remain in emotional constipation. This is a persuasive argument against the dangers of the over educated.

The manipulative personalities could make for a worthwhile character-driven play, but director Kirsten Brandt’s un-spontaneous production of a complex play is Johnny-One-Note in its surface exploration of This’ dense emotional landscape. Her treatment of the play is devoid of palpable passion preferring an academic approach and misses the play’s underlying vulnerability. Such insight would have added dimension to the character’s self-immolation with ironic humor.

The actors play from the ears up except Richard Baird who performs from the neck up. Now a Chicago-based actor jobbed in for This, Mr. Baird is San Diego’s Orson Wells Jr. whose baritone voice produces a rich radio performance. Playing opposite him, Judith Scott’s Marrell exchanges pedestrian sullen repartee. We have no sense of their character’s residue of love.

Ms. Corey’s Jane could have been a character-as-oasis of quirky courage. What materializes is strident neediness. Jean-Pierre (Matt Thompson) appears a handsome if vacuous figure and his French dialect is negligible.

It would have been consoling if the production design evoked New York fashion. It plays as suburban San Francisco. Ms. Brandt borrows visuals from the original production especially with Alina Bokovikova’s costumes. Marty Burnet delivers a scenic design carbon-copied from his production of Rabbit Hole while Matt Novotny’s lighting design is serviceable. The sound design is from a different play.

Charles Isherwood observed, “This is a work 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.”

Nice work if you can get it.

This runs through April 29 at the North Coast Rep., 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Ste. D in Solana Beach. Visit northcoastrep.org or call 858-481-1055 for tickets.

Short URL: http://lgbtweekly.com/?p=23691

Posted by on Apr 26, 2012. Filed under Entertainment Feature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

5 Comments for “Gen-X meets middle-age madness”

  1. Very well written review. This guy is a wordsmith and it’s an art in itself! It challenged me a bit and I was intrigued. So nice to see this caliber of writing in a San Diego publication! From ~Desperately seeking culture.

  2. Bravo to LGBT News for its wise choice in recruiting Thom Vegh to write about local theatre. Playwright actor – and a perceptive critic who clearly loves the theatre and wants to see the best – he is an insightful guide for all of us.
    More, please.


  3. Interesting review, the initial reference to the “APA’s Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders” caught my eye and drew me in to the interesting and superbly written review of play which might not have caught my eye otherwise. I am kind of stuck of my bread and butter diet of the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe. Seeing reviews like this in our local LGBT newspaper might entice me to stray away to more daring fare.

  4. Wow! What a relief to finally read a candid and informed review! After reading the UT’s soft pedaled review of THIS, Mr. Vegh brought an incisive point of view of what was a precarious play to mount. I look forward to learning more of his POV on local theatre.

  5. Thank you for this wonderfully written review by local critic, actor and playwright. I found it to be clear and incisive, written with passion for and knowledge of theater arts. I look forward to more from Mr Vegh!

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