Should a play be taken to task for the news cycle it arrives in? Probably not. Unless that work actually invites the scrutiny.
Take the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s smart if mildly aggravating regional premiere of “This,” at the Dairy Center through May 18.
Melissa James Gibson’s play about a group of 30-something friends would seem to do just that, thanks to the outsider presence of Jean Pierre, a physician with the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders.
A drama with pointed laughs, “This” concerns longtime friends Jane, Alan, Merrell and her husband, Tom. Each is at a moment in their lives when they are trying to make sense of their dreams versus their realities. In this regard, the French doc would seem to have them beat. He knows his purpose.
Beneath his hardly judgmental gaze, the quartet manages to make major issues — betrayal, grief, parenting — seem minor.
It’s clear from the get-go that an encounter has been engineered for Jane and Jean Pierre. Alan, a gay man with a tart wit and total recall, teases the fact, poking again and again at the words “dear friend,” which Merrell uses introducing Jane (Jessica Robblee) but not him.
Gibson has a near acrobatic skill with structure and the pleasures — and failings — of language.
“This” begins with a parlor word game, and a ruse of sorts. But during it, we learn Jane is widowed.
There are other bravura instances where feats of words lead to bitter revelations. And a scene in which Alan uses his total recall in the midst of an argument is downright genius and painfully funny.
Tom (Michael Morgan) and Merrell (Ghandia Johnson) have a baby and suffer the testy malady of new parents everywhere: not enough sleep. Though there’s even more to their edge. Their living room may not be the kind Jean Pierre is used to, but he’s definitely landed in a conflict zone.
David R. Russell brings a mix of ease and authority to his turn as Jean Pierre.
Josh Hartwell’s Alan has a taste for drink, perhaps to douse his unerring memory. He also likes to needle — the better to protect himself?
This is a strong cast working with Christy Montour-Larson, one of the area’s most sensitive directors. Still, it would help if Merrell, Tom and Jane — since the dramatic tensions involve them most — were more likable. Understanding their midlife quandaries turns out not to be the same as having sympathy for them.
When Jean Pierre departs the apartment and the play, he sums up the goings-on with a word Alan taught him earlier.
I won’t give it away, but in a world gone mad (one that produces a hashtag phenom like #bringourgirlsback), it’s rather damning and spot-on,
And, no, not just of the action, but perhaps more uncomfortably, of the final notes of the play itself.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/bylisakennedy