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Humor and Poignancy Meld in School of Acting's Production of 'This'

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In the chair: Roman Reyes (Tom) and Tiffani Williams (Marrell). On the sofa: Carlos Carrillo (Jean Pierre); Zoe Foulks (Jane) and Mario Mazzetti (standing). Photo by Bob Toy.

At first glance, the lives of the four smart, urbane college friends in Academy of Art University’s School of Acting’s recent production of This look as bright as the lights of New York City, the play’s setting. But as Melissa James Gibson’s Obie award-winning play unfolded at the 620 Sutter Street Theatre, the audience quickly grasped that wasn’t the case. Teetering on the brink of middle-age, none of the characters are thrilled with the view. The play brims with witty dialogue that drew lots of laughs from the audience. But the more serious notes of disappointment and regret that permeate This were equally compelling.

The play opens with a party hosted by Marrell, (Tiffani Williams), a nightclub singer and her husband, Tom (Roman Reyes), a woodworker. The couple are frazzled parents of an infant who rarely sleeps. Marrell’s best friend Jane (Zoe Foulks), is the evening’s guest of honor. A teacher and poet, Jane is a single mom approaching the one-year anniversary of her husband’s sudden death. Mired in guilt and remorse, she’s unable to express her true feelings or move forward with her life. Alan, her glib, heavy-drinking gay friend—played with hilarious perfection by Mario Mazzetti—is beginning to question whether the photographic memory that’s brought him fame is more of a curse than a gift. A fifth guest, Jean Pierre (Carlos Carrillo), a free-spirited French physician, who works for Doctors Without Borders, is also on hand. Marrell met him at one of her gigs and invited him to the party in the hopes that he and Jane would hit it off, although it soon becomes evident that she’s more attracted to Jean Pierre than Jane is. 

The party doesn’t go well. Marrell and Tom snipe at each other as the baby cries. Alan drinks too much. And as the unwilling focal point of a guessing game, Jane gets so upset she leaves. Tom shows up at her apartment to make sure she’s okay. And confiding that he’s unhappy in his marriage and has always longed for Jane, they sleep together, a decision Jane immediately regrets. 

“This is one of the first plays I’ve been in where my character has more of an emotional stake in things,” said Reyes. “I liked trying to adapt to an older character that has a family and friends that have known each other for years and who goes out and does things he knows he shouldn’t be doing,” he explained.” It was a really interesting experience to get into that kind of head space.”

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Roman Reyes and Zoe Foulks. Photo by Bob Toy.

Foulks brought a subdued gravity to Jane that realistically conveyed her character’s underlying sadness and pent-up emotions. According to Foulks, playing an older woman coping with major life traumas was intimidating at first. But she found ways to connect with Jane. 

“I channeled my mother,” she said. “And even though I’m much younger than Jane, I related to her because she has so much going on inside of her all the time. Loss and the friendship and relationships—those things definitely felt personal.”

Clark Houston Lewis, the play’s director, said he was proud of the actors’ hard work and the true camaraderie they developed.

“In just five weeks, they put on a show that’s non-stop for an hour and 45 minutes and deals with lots of heavy duty stuff,” he stated. “Emotionally, they knew they would be there for each other, which enabled them to take risks. That helped me in rehearsals and helped them to trust themselves with the material.”

Carrillo, who not only mastered a flawless French accent for his role but also provided some of the night’s funniest moments, appreciated Lewis’s support and the way the cast bonded.

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Tiffani Williams. Seated, from left to right: Zoe Foulks, Roman Reyes, Mario Mazzetti and Carlos Carrillo. Photo by Bob Toy.

“Clark is a wonderful director,” he remarked. “As a cast, we formed connections that helped us keep the energy up and the pace flowing. It was a really fun experience.”

After Jane and Tom’s fling, the play rolls along in a series of scenes that seamlessly morph together. Settings included a park and the nightclub where Marrell sings (Williams’s sultry voice was as impressive as her acting). Tension between the friends builds as the strain of hiding painful feelings and secrets about their relationships and themselves becomes too much to bear. 

In a climactic scene, Jane finally tells Marrell about her tryst with Tom and shares feelings about her dead husband she’s been too ashamed to say out loud: “My stock went up after his death. People started talking about him like he was Desmond Freaking (sic) Tutu. He wasn’t. He was just a great guy. Why can’t that be enough?”

In their own way, each of her friends arrive at similar places by the play’s end. They make peace with the This that is their life, however imperfect that may be.