Actors Theatre Knocks Mundane, Whiny This Out of the Park

A few years back, Ron May directed [sic], a slightly twisted domestic comedy by Canadian Melissa James Gibson, at Stray Cat Theatre (where he's also artistic director). The ensemble acquitted themselves respectably, the writing showed a bit more promise than the usual tale of single, dysfunctional, apartment-dwelling Manhattanites, but I would've been fine with having missed it altogether.

Not only have May and Gibson both grown as artists since then (and it's a treat to see their work, Actors Theatre's production of This, on the Herberger's Stage West with a real set and everything), contemporary works have diverged from that once-ubiquitous Seinfriendsy model. It's actually comforting, the 21st century having come to what it has, to once again see a bunch of attractive, gifted characters nearly paralyzed by self-absorption.

Seriously, if you're far enough up the Maslovian hierarchy that you're concerned you haven't published any poetry in 15 years, or your artisan husband has too many pieces of interesting wood stashed around your home, or you're reduced to finishing off the Triple Sec to get through an evening with your friends, you're in fairly privileged territory. Or are you? Because anyone, including Gibson and her conveniently European character, Jean-Pierre (deftly played by David Dickinson with just a few misplaced but unselfconscious vowels) could tell you those aren't the real problems.

So if you are or ever have been a parent, an adulterer, bereaved, betrayed, an alcoholic, queer, sleep-deprived, sex-deprived, of color, indecisive, and/or guilt-ridden, this is the play for you! Um, yay? Yes. Because This doesn't just illustrate these oddly hypercivilized lives; it suggests that the crazy treadmill isn't permanent, that we have it in us to move forward, accept consequences and responsibility, and equip another generation to make its own set of brilliant mistakes.

The play is also wildly funny much of the time (in a mood-swingy fashion), with respect to both dialogue and its execution, and the ensemble charming enough that you can believe the three old friends at its center have been close since college. Oliver Wadsworth, in particular, impressed me with his chameleon-like ability to play a miserable schlub -- he's an attractive, vital man (or at least plays one quite well in other shows) who is hiding all that under a bushel to highlight his character's self-deprecating wit in the face of tragedy. Which is -- well, I hesitate to tell you, because it's a lovely reveal. And though it's yet another kind of deus ex machina, it's a creative one.

And that set -- it's a multi-functional, tellingly detailed, high-ceilinged wonder by Peter Beudert. There's a lot to look at, yet the way May has the cast inhabit and own it, it only reinforces and doesn't distract from all that's going on.

This continues through Sunday, February 6, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. To order tickets, $18.25 to $44.50, click here or call 602-252-7399.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson