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Review: Available Light’s Barbed and Moving ‘This’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Review: Available Light’s Barbed and Moving ‘This’Photos by Matt Slaybaugh.
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Available Light score another home run with their crackling production of This, the Off-Broadway comedy by Melissa James Gibson, directed by Acacia Duncan.

This opens with a party game straight out of BF Skinner and never lets up in its relentless picking-apart of human rituals and contemporary ennui. Merrell (Shanelle Marie) and Tom (Jason Kientz) throw a dinner party for their college friends Jane (Blythe Coons) and Alan (Ben Sostrom). The party gets Jane out of the house after a rough year but also serves as a set-up between Jane and Merrell’s friend Jean-Pierre (Andy Woodmansee), a dashing Frenchman who works for Doctors Without Borders and provides the spark to fuel everyone’s longing, and upend their wagons when he walks in the door.

Gibson’s play, and Duncan’s note-perfect production, hits all the pleasure buttons of a sharp comedy of manners while it punctures and subverts the form. This accomplishes the classic magician’s trick of laying all its cards on the table with its first scene: comfortable people create a game based in narrative and follow its “rules” right off a cliff until someone gets hurt. These characters, more types than people, exist in a bubble of quick cleverness as inertia propels them forward in well-worn ruts.

That everyone-is-the-same-type-of-clever could get grating but in this cast’s hands, it soars with enormous, unforced laughs. There are a few exceptions where the timing drops its syncopation for a straight beat and slips into a sitcom, most notably a discussion of “what kind of bad person” Sostrom’s Alan is, but it makes its language feel natural enough that strangeness has to seep around the edges.

These characters flail at righting their lives and remembering to live in ways the audience has seen before but in hilarious, often surprising ways. Duncan directs this rapid-fire material, letting her actors breathe but never letting the throttle up. The just-over-90-minute run time seems to vanish in the blink of an eye.

There isn’t a weak or false performance to be found anywhere. Shanelle Marie reaffirms her uncanny star power and nuance by following each of Merrell’s contradictions and complications to their truest form. Blythe Coons paints a vibrant picture of a person who can’t find the vibrancy in herself. Ben Sostrom takes the broadest comedic character, a mnemonist, and tears into it with antic energy and uncanny empathy.

Details are sparse here to avoid giving away the hilarious comedic set-pieces, but This held me rapt and sent me spinning into the night.

This runs through April 13 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, April 7, and 8 p.m. Thursday, April 11. For tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com.

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