PITTSFIELD — The success of an ensemble drama can hinge on how seamlessly, or not, the playwright is able to blend the usual and the not-at-all usual. Does she or he persuade us that we just happen to be looking in on a family or friends, living their everyday lives, when something out of the ordinary happens and suddenly Everything Changes?
Melissa James Gibson clears that bar with room to spare in “This,’’ now at Barrington Stage Company under the direction of Louisa Proske. But Gibson’s witty, insightful, and insistently humane play does not depend solely, or even primarily, on the ripples from its central event: an infidelity that betrays a marriage and a friendship in one fell swoop.
No, it is the tossed-off locutions from “This,’’ more than any event, that remain stuck in your brainpan well after the house lights come up and you’ve returned to your own everyday life.
“She’s one of those people you’d rather talk about than to’’; “Isn’t most people’s unhappiness interdisciplinary?’’; “You know exactly what I’m not quite talking about’’; “He should not be left unslept with’’; “He’s a pattern pointer-outer.’’
OK, that last one feels like a borrowing from “Seinfeld.’’ But on balance “This’’ is rewarding precisely because it consistently delivers that elusive thing we go to the theater to find, whether we’re conscious of it or not: the sound of an original voice.
Gibson uses her authorial voice to quickly immerse us in the personalities, sensibilities, and even the worldviews of her characters, bringing a sensation of freshness to people and situations that are pretty familiar. “This,’’ which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2009, tracks the disruptions and eruptions in the relationships of friends in their late 30s or early 40s who are lost in longing, vaguely or specifically dissatisfied, and more than a bit stunned to find that they now meet the technical definition of middle-aged.
In broad outline, we’ve met versions of pretty much everyone in “This’’ before, either in real life, onstage, on TV (“thirtysomething’’) or on film (“The Big Chill’’). Nor is there anything terribly novel about the play’s setup: a dinner party hosted by Tom (Eddie Boroevich) and Marrell (Erica Dorfler), a couple undergoing severe marital strains that may or may not be caused by the demands of caring for a new baby who, Marrell sighs, “sleeps in 15-minute increments.’’
Also present at the party are Jane (Julia Coffey), left emotionally numb by the death one year earlier of her beloved husband; Jean-Pierre (Paris Remillard), a shaggily handsome French physician who works with Doctors Without Borders, whom Marrell is hoping to fix up with Jane; and gay, restless, quippy Alan (Barrington Stage mainstay Mark H. Dold, nearly unrecognizable in lank, longish hair and oversize eyeglasses), who keeps trying to interest Jean-Pierre in himself, without success.
Alan is blessed and cursed with total recall, able to re-create, verbatim, all that is said in his presence, no matter how distant in time. That double-edged gift will weigh heavily on the scale before “This’’ is done.
As she also did last summer at Barrington Stage with Jiehae Park’s “peerless,’’ another play that managed to be funny while cutting deep, director Proske has drawn sharply and sensitively delineated performances from her splendid cast in “This.’’ Singly or together, the actors make virtually every moment ring true, such as when the baby cries and the entire dinner party freezes as one, all of them, especially Tom and Marrell, desperate for the baby to remain sleeping. Or when Marrell sits at a piano and sings in a jazz club, and we can see and hear her soaring, however briefly, beyond the constraints of domestic life. (Dorfler, who was in the Broadway cast of “Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812,’’ beautifully performs songs composed for “This’’ by Peter Eldridge.)
Or the pivotal scene when Jane finally pours out her anguish, not just at the loss of her husband, but at the way her friends have distorted her experience of that loss by unfairly idealizing him and their marriage. Of course, Jane herself has something to answer for by that point.
None of the friends are without fault or foible, but you get the sense that Gibson doesn’t just see them all very clearly but also cares about them to roughly equal degree. Such is the playwright’s skill that by the end of “This,’’ so do those of us in the audience.
Play by Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Louisa Proske. Presented by Barrington Stage Company. At St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield, through Aug. 27. Tickets $15-$48, 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.