THIS on stage until January 3rd Recommended by Davien

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Darren Pettie and Julianne Nicolson confront middle age in Melissa James Gibson’s drama at Playwrights Horizons.

Published: December 4, 2009
“This” is a bum title for the beautiful new play at 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.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
From left, Glenn Fitzgerald, Elsa David and Julianne Nicholson in “This.”
The author of the quirky, cult-appeal comedies “[sic]” and “Suitcase,” both seen at the downtown powerhouse Soho Rep, Ms. Gibson graduates into the theatrical big leagues with this beautifully conceived, confidently executed and wholly accessible work, which is not just her finest to date but also the best new play to open Off Broadway this fall.

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.