Early in Becky Shaw, Gina Gionfriddo’s delightfully nasty comedy at the Huntington Theatre Company, childhood friends and siblings-of-sort Suzanna Slater (Keira Naughton) and Max Garrett (Seth Fisher) decide to watch a movie while staying in a New York hotel. Max suggests porn, but settles for horror - a genre they grew to love when they were kids growing up together in North Carolina (Max was adopted by Suzanna’s family upon his mother’s death.) In fact they know the genre so well that when Max bets Susannah $100.00 if she can name the film on the television, she responds with the title - Nightmare on Elm Street 3 -- without missing a beat.
What they don’t realize is that their lives will soon resemble a plot from some horror film. No, not of the Elm Street variety; something more subtle and psychological - like something Roman Polanski might dream of, but with a script by Christopher Durang. For into their messy lives (and they are very messy) comes Becky Shaw (Wendy Hoopes), a seemingly harmless office temp who screams neediness as loudly as the pink dress she wears on a blind date with Max. ("You look like a birthday cake," he says upon meeting her.) You would think she’d be no match for the Max, for whom no nasty retort is out of bounds; and could easily be dismissed. But remember Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction? Becky could be her long-lost daughter.
This isn’t to suggest that Becky Shaw is written in the style of a horror film. (No, Becky doesn’t boil a pet rabbit.) Gionfriddo’s concerns are more thoughtful and wide-reaching and what’s she written is no less than a commentary on class, contemporary relationships and morality told as a comedy of manners (or as the New York Times put it, a comedy of bad manners).
By far the most egregious example of that bad behavior comes from Max, a 30-something money manager for whom putdowns are a way of life, no matter how cutting or ill-time. In fact, the more cutting and ill-timed the better. At first he’s the most centered character on the stage; but what Gionfriddo does so well is shift the ground beneath her characters feet so even Max’s ever-so-controlled world is shaken by the play’s final scene. It’s hard to imagine him a victim, yet he becomes one.
Disastrous blind date
Gionfriddo’s plot centers on a blind date between Max and Becky orchestrated by Suzanna and her new husband Andrew Porter (Eli James) -- a barista turned office manager who longs to be making lattes for Yuppies, not working with them. Even before the date Suzanna and Andrew see it as problematic: how can anyone get close to Max who turns relationships off after three months? Becky, it appears, is no match for him. Dressed in a frilly, feminine way that makes her look slightly ridiculous and out of style, she’s the antithesis of the sleek, sophisticated women Max dates. Plus Becky has baggage, and is at an emotional and financial low in her life. She doesn’t even own a cell phone ("Is my date Amish?" snaps Max); and their date, which includes a robbery at gunpoint, a trip to the police station and some hasty sex, proves disastrous. As Max tells Susannah, "Romantic relationships are the pairing of equals! That woman is not my equal!"
Becky, distraught by this turn of events and by Max’s refusal to return her phone calls, turns to Andrew for comfort; and Andrew, a sucker for needy women with problems, complies all to willingly, much to Suzanna’s chagrin. It sounds a bit predictable, but Gionfriddo spins it with such sharp humor and narrative twists that the play remains engrossing and a bit mysterious. What is driving these character to do the things they do? Only their therapists know for sure.
Acting as something of a tonic to these 30-somethings is Susan Slater (Maureen Anderman), Suzanna’s mother, whose acerbic comments cut to the bone. Susan, suffering from multiple sclerosis and having recently lost her husband, has taken up with a younger companion to whom she is hopelessly devoted. "The heart wants what the heart wants," she says late in the play about her own situation, but it applies to the others as well. Not that there’s much sentiment to Susan - her no-nonsense worldview gives her the insights the other characters lack; and she drops epigrams as if she wandered out of an Oscar Wilde play. She is, though, wonderfully drawn by Gionfriddo and is played with steely hauteur by Anderman, At one point she’s confronted to face the fact that her husband may have been gay, but is unwilling to acknowledge it, even if true. For her the contemporary notion that couples need to know every detail about their partner’s lives is harmful, dangerous even. "It’s like those television commercials where they take a microscope into your kitchen and show you a lot of germs the naked eye can’t see," she states. We need, as she puts it, "pockets of mystery" to survive in the long-term.
Gionfriddo’s ceaselessly funny banter and oddly mysterious turn-of-events combine to make Becky Shaw hugely enjoyable, though some may feel guilty finding humor in Max’s mean-spiritedness and the play’s dark tone. Interestingly the line that got the biggest laugh is also the cruelest, which indicates where the audience’s sympathies fall at the end of the play. What keeps the play from slipping down a cynical rabbit hole is how sharply individualized these characters are -- they may border on caricature (most notably the New Age Andrew, who cries at porn), but Gionfriddo gives them human dimensions that makes them compellingly real. Even with Becky, named in part after Thackeray’s great social climber Becky Sharp. But watching her passive/aggressive manipulation made me think of Alex Forrest again -- "I’m not gonna be ignored!" And may point out the underlying moral of the story: avoid blind dates.
Peter DuBois (the Huntington’s artistic director) directed the initial (and largely acclaimed) production at New York’s Second Stage early in 2009, and he again helms it here with canny insight into the play’s mix of social comedy and mystery. The production’s cinematic flow is abetted by Derek McLane’s mobile sets and Jeff Mahshie’s costumes, which in their own way underscore the sly commentary on class inherent to the script. As the distraught Suzanna, torn between her allegiances between Max and Andrew, Keira Naughton is wonderfully apt; Eli James brings an endearing, puppy dog quality to Andrew (a role that could easily have gone the other way); and Wendy Hoopes plays Becky Shaw like a latter-day Eve Harrington; victim one moment, vindicator the next. Maureen Anderman’s Susan recalls Wilde’s Lady Bracknell -- an upper class matron who throws off her comments with near-regal authority. (Learning from Max on a visit to New York that her financial situation is considerably reduced, she dismisses him by saying, "You are a rich man who puts his family in a two-star hotel.") But by far the play belongs to Seth Fisher’s hilarious Max. While he throws off brutal one-liners with unfiltered honesty, he ably suggests the lost little boy beneath; he’s funny and -- believe it or not -- worthy of sympathy as his world turns upside-down. Hail Becky Shaw -- a cautionary tale told with withering wit and enormous insight by a playwright with a most welcome voice.
Becky Shaw continues through April 4, 2010 at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information visit the Huntington Theatre website.
Watch this preview of the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Becky Shaw.