Darren Pettie, Julianne Nicholson, and Eisa Davis in This
(© Joan Marcus)
Darren Pettie, Julianne Nicholson, and Eisa Davis in This
(© Joan Marcus)
"Can we stop talking about punctuation?" asks Jane, the thirtysomething poet at the center of Melissa James Gibson's thoroughly involving new play, This, now premiering at Playwrights Horizons under Daniel Aukin's skillful direction. And the truth is, no amount of commas -- or similes or metaphors or consonants or vowels -- can mask the problems that Jane (Julianne Nicholson) and her hyperarticulate friends are facing in their daily struggles to get by. Unexpected widowhood, thoughtless adultery, sleep deprivation, and rootlessness simply cannot be tamed by language, not even language as beautiful and intricate as Gibson's.

The play, which takes place on Louisa Thompson's complex multi-functional set, is set almost one year after the sudden death of Jane's husband, Roy. Unsurprisingly, she's living in a state of almost half-consciousness, barely managing to take care of her young daughter, Maude, and precariously maintaining her relationships with her two closest college friends: Alan, a professional mnemonist and quick-witted, alcoholic homosexual (played by Glenn Fitzgerald, in a wryly entertaining and ultimately poignant turn that almost overcomes the part's cliches) and African-American jazz singer and new mother Marrell (Eisa Davis, who gets to display both her first-rate acting chops and her equally sublime singing voice, performing evocative tunes by Gibson and Peter Eldridge).

But Jane's judgment is also less sound than one suspects it might be under different circumstances, which is why she gives in to the sexual advances of Marrell's frustrated husband, Tom (Darren Pettie). Without question, Jane is sorry. In fact, sorry is a word she (and the others) repeat over and over again, almost like a mantra, although it brings little comfort to bearer or recipient. Actions, as Gibson almost ironically reminds us, really do speak louder than words. (That may also be why that the lengthy apology Jane presents to the unseen Maude to conclude the play seems unnecessary on all counts.)

In many ways, This is an enormous balancing act, as Gibson simultaneously makes us aware of her characters' failings and gift for self-absorption while she retains our sympathy for their plights as ordinary people simply trying to make it through the day. She also provides an intriguing counterpoint with Jean-Pierre, a sexy French doctor who works in Africa (played by Louis Cancelmi with the perfect mixture of Gallic charm and European smugness). In the group's worst moment, he comes out and tells the foursome that their problems are "dinky" -- and you sense that, in some ways, he's absolutely right.

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, it's a deeply felt performance, and 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.