THIS by Melissa James Gibson (Canadian Stage). At the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to April 13. $22-$49. 416-368-3110. See listings. Rating: NNNNN
You probably won't recognize the Berkeley Street Theatre when you enter it. The raised stage is gone, the seating area has been reconfigured - many seats are now right on the playing area - and the large windows have been unshuttered, letting natural light into the loft-like space. A big green "backstage door" is used as a door for a character to enter through.
All of this is a way of establishing intimacy, abandoning artifice and borders and drawing you into the world of Melissa James Gibson's remarkable play THIS. It works, as does everything else in this haunting production.
The first local professional staging of a work by the Canadian-born, now NYC-based Gibson, the play is nominally about a handful of mid-to-late 30-somethings dealing with parenthood, death and infidelity. But it's so much richer than that sounds.
Ex-college friends Jane (Laura Condlln), Alan (Alon Nashman) and Marrell (Yanna McIntosh) are at a dinner party at the NYC home Marrell shares with her husband, Tom (Jonathon Young), and their infant. Booze is being poured and they're expecting the arrival of an outsider, Jean-Pierre (Christian Laurin), who works with Doctors Without Borders.
Remember that word, "borders." Over the next hour and a half, Gibson's characters trample all over each other as the fluid, funny yet tragic story of adultery, friendship and reparation plays out.
Sometimes they stretch the meaning and subtext of a word like "sorry" or the difference between "should" and "could." At other times they stubbornly refuse to use words at all to deal with a crisis, one character playing the piano while another planes a piece of wood.
Every detail is carefully chosen and beautifully - but not fussily - directed by Matthew Jocelyn. Scenes echo and bleed into others, casual bits of dialogue take on significance without ever feeling precious or overwrought.
And just when you're about to think, "This is just a bunch of First World problems," Gibson has a character say something that puts everything into perspective. Then she'll surprise you with another scene that goes a step further.
I've withheld many plot points because much of the play defies synopsis and relies on surprise and the slow accretion of detail. It's about the energy and friction that happens when people bump up against each other trying to communicate.
At times THIS is as funny as the savviest sitcom; at others it's as harrowing and inevitable as Greek tragedy.
The performances, grounded in naturalism, feel authentic and true. These are words your neighbour might speak (in fact, you might find yourself sitting next to one of the actors during the play), but they're delivered with the utmost skill.
THIS is one of the best plays and productions of this or any other year.