THIS Playwrights Horizons

But then Melissa James Gibson, the author of this tart, melancholy comedy about a group of close friends entering the choppy waters of middle age, has such boundless affection for language that even the drabbest constellations of vowels and consonants — words like “this,” in other words — are made to soar and leap like ballet dancers in full, ecstatic flight, or alternately stand alone in a sea of silence, ominous and resonant, like those pregnant pauses in a Pinter play.Its confused but lovable characters are drawn with a fine focus and a piercing emotional depth; the dialogue sparkles with exchanges as truthful as they are clever; and as directed by Daniel Aukin, Ms. Gibson’s longtime collaborator, and performed by a flawless cast, the play’s delicate pace, richly patterned wordplay and undercurrent of rue combine to cast a moving spell that lingers in the memory, like a sad-sweet pop song whose chorus you can’t shake. This is entirely appropriate for a play 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.“This” begins with a silly party game that Jane (Julianne Nicholson), a teacher and poet, is reluctant to play. Her married friends Tom (Darren Pettie) and Marrell (Eisa Davis), with a newborn in the next room, are determined to show her a good time. Actually they are just as eager for fun themselves, since the baby’s arrival — and the boy’s inability to sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time — has strained their relationship to the point that the water level in the Brita jug in the refrigerator becomes a flashpoint of irritation. The acerbic, gay Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), another friend they’ve all known since their now-distant college days, is more interested in rooting through the cupboards to find a last bottle of wine, but he’s game too.The rules are easy enough: The central player leaves the room and then tries to recreate a story the others have concocted in his or her absence by asking a series of yes-no questions. Unwilling to be a spoilsport, particularly in front of the handsome French doctor, Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), who has obviously been invited as a potential man for her, Jane agrees to play.But the game is not precisely as it is described to Jane, and when she begins trying to ferret out the story, the narrative that emerges begins scraping a little too close to the bone. It appears to be something about a recently widowed woman involved with another couple. Jane lost her husband just a year before, and takes natural offense. The party fizzles awkwardly, as Jane shuffles home to her 9-year-old daughter, Maude.When Tom shows up at her door to apologize the next day, Jane is still antsy and awkward, qualities rendered with lucent sensitivity by Ms. Nicholson, who has the shell-shocked air of someone who’s just staggered out of bed after a sleepless night. “I’m just tired of, ‘I’m sorry,’ in general, in life,” she says. “It’s all I’ve heard for the past year, I’m cranky.” (Of course she can’t resist adding, “I’m sorry.”) Remorse will become Jane’s obsession, the waking nightmare she moves through like a sleepwalker, after she and Tom engage in a bout of impulsive sex that turns the vague story from the party into a sort of fateful prophecy.Tales of midlife adultery are an everyday staple of contemporary theater — and of contemporary life, I suppose. But Ms. Gibson’s is drawn with a scintillating verbal humor, honesty and a keen compassion that upends conventions and avoids the predictable at every turn. Dogging all the play’s characters, with the exception of the suave, self-confident Jean-Pierre, is the disquieting sense that the rules of life have been changed midway through the game, and they are now sitting with a less promising set of cards than they started out with. Doubt and remorse, both the honorable and the useless kind, plague everyone. Tom’s attraction to Jane is an expression of his frustration about his disappointing career as a woodworker, while his withdrawal from Marrell sets her wondering too, about why she’s soWhat I can’t tell is if we’re unhappy together, individually or both of the above,” she tells Jane, who is too embarrassed to offer any but vague and conflicting advice. “Adultery is not the answer,” Jane says feebly, all but quivering with mortification at her hypocrisy. “That sounds like a bumper sticker,” Marrell snaps. Alan, who is on a messy but earnest search for some way to remake his life (he is considering a sudden swerve into good works, or maybe adding a letter to his first name), seems to regret just about every decision he has or has not made. And given that he is gifted — or is it cursed? — with total recall of his experience (it’s a rare but actual condition, or superpower), the burden weighs him down with unusual heaviness, lifted only by frequent recourse to booze. Mr. Fitzgerald’s tense, closed-in performance cuts through any potential clichés in this mildly familiar character: the bitter, boozy, loveless gay best friend, ever ready with a wisecrack. And Ms. Gibson’s writing for him is full of aphorisms that hit home. “Why are you sitting in the almost dark?” asks Jane when she comes home to find the baby-sitting Alan drenched in shadow. “It’s the human condition, Jane, in case you haven’t noticed,” he replies briskly.

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