“Parade” sounds like the title for a light hearted, maybe even frivolous musical. The actual show turns out to be a far meatier work. Based on a real incident that occurred in the early years of the twentieth century, just 50 years after the Civil War, “Parade” deals with a very ugly chapter in American history. One that is often left out of the history books, partly because anti-Semitism was supposedly happening all over Europe at this time, but not here in the States.
The Shanghai Ballet has made a name for itself performing original dance pieces and incorporating important works of Western ballet tradition into their repertory. But last week at Montgomery College the Shanghai Ballet gave us an early Halloween treat when they mounted a fine production of “La Sylphide,” perhaps the oldest ballet still in the repertory.
“This” is one of the more unusual titles I have encountered for a play. It helps the critics: we can say “This” is great or “This” is too long or “This” is CNN, but it poses a question to the audience. What in the world is “This” all about?
Currently down at Round House Theater in Bethesda is a strong production of Melissa James Gibson’s off Broadway comedy-drama “This.” It is a story about four long time college friends, two of whom are married to each other, and a newcomer that enters their lives. If the audience is trying to figure out what “This” is, so are the people on stage as they reach a critical period in their lives.
The surface story is simple enough. Jane was recently widowed and has a young daughter. Her friends try to match her up with this French doctor, but that turns out to be a side plot. The bi-racial married couple, Marrell and Tom, recently had a child and is going through a rough patch in their marriage. It turns out that Jane wants to help but causes many more problems.
Gibson uses a lot of misdirection in her play. “This” is described as a play with music, and actress Felicia Curry does a good job as a nightclub singer in one scene, but the show can hardly be classified as a musical. Actor Will Gartshore does a very good job as Jean-Pierre, a “doctor without borders” who provides a renewed romantic interest for Jane. It is very easy to do a parody of a French accent, but Gartshore gives Jean-Pierre a believable accent.
Although this romantic interest seems to be the main story line at first, it turns out that the center of the play is the four college friends, all of whom seem to be having a mid-life crisis. What is causing of all “This” to happen is gradually revealed as the play continues. Gibson does not hide things from you, and this is not a detective story, but the main themes of the show gradually come into focus in the final scenes. The characters in the story love to play games, but this time the game has no rules.
Director Ryan Rilette keeps this play moving nicely, helped by James Kronzer’s set design that spins new locations rapidly into place as we rapidly go from living rooms to parks to night clubs.
The cast is well chosen, especially Lise Bruneau as Jane and Felicia Curry as Marrell. These are tricky roles to pull off because you need to feel sympathy for the characters, even though they do a lot of hand wringing and self-criticism throughout the play. Actor Todd Scofield has an equally difficult as Tom, who manages to make Marrell’s less than faithful husband somewhat sympathetic. Michael Glenn plays Alan as the odd man out – the friend who is mostly as comic relief, and very good at the one liners, but who has a more serious turn as the play proceeds
The only issue in this play is the same one that affected “Rancho Mirage” up at Olney Theater – after all that these characters go through, the ending seems pat and a little too neat. While not as tidy as “Rancho,” and with some questions definitely unanswered, “This” still feels a little rushed and clear cut in the final stretch.
A lot of this play is under the surface, and barely hinted at, although a director might do in various directions with it. For example, both Marrell and Jane are in mixed marriages and yet race hardly seems to be an issue in this production. This game has no rules; therefore, it can have multiple solutions, which is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of both this script and this production.
“This” continues at Round House Theater in Bethesda through November 3. For more information, call (240) 644-1100 or go online to http://www.roundhousetheatre.org/.
By David Cannon
Mocovox Entertainment Critic