If you heard about a play in which an older married couple spends time discussing their lives with a younger married couple, you might first think of the Edward Albee classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Though that landmark play must have been an inspiration for The Gift, the comparisons end there.
Sadie (Kathy Baker) and Ed (Chris Mulkey) are celebrating their wedding anniversary at a tropical resort. While having dinner they spot Chloe (Jamie Ray Newman) and Martin (James Van Der Beek) who seem to be having a much more enjoyable and romantic evening. The elder couple strikes up a conversation with them and soon the foursome is inseparable. They go boating and when Ed falls overboard (he can’t swim) Martin rescues him. Sadie and Ed insist that they give a gift to Chloe and Martin to thank them. One year later they visit their new friends to reveal what they’d like their gift to be.
Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has forgotten one significant component in writing this play. She hasn’t given us any reason to care about any of the characters nor does she imbue them, particularly Ed, with any consistency. After his near-death experience he is a completely different character. So different that I’m surprised Sadie still recognizes him. There is humor in the play and I’ll admit to laughing… twice. That humor neither entertains nor really enlightens us as to who these people are.
The burden of giving us something to invest in falls on the shoulders of the cast. Ms. Baker excels; for a good share of the play she speaks directly to the audience. It isn’t a good device but she is a strong enough actor to keep us watching. Mr. Mulkey can’t quite make the two transitions of his character believable, but that’s a problem with the play. He does all he can. Mr. Van Der Beek gave a mostly monotone performance. Ms. Newman, on the other hand, is the lifeblood of that relationship.
Ms. Murray-Smith has written a 90-minute play with no intermission, so it's disheartening that director Maria Aitken relies on a visual gimmick to end The Gift. The device was as obvious as the rest of the play. It’s as if she either has no faith in the play (that’s understandable) or, more offensively, the audience. If people are willing to take time and see a play, they want more than babysitting.
Albee writes in Virginia Woolf of “dashed hopes and good intentions. Good, better, best, bested.” I’m not sure of Ms. Murray-Smith’s hopes or intentions with The Gift, but it has certainly been bested.