Becky Shaw's Not the Focus of 'Becky Shaw'

Gina Gionfriddo's sharply written play takes its turn at South Coast Rep

Like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud and the avian statue in The Maltese Falcon, the woman after whom Gina Gionfriddo’s sharply written 2009 comedy Becky Shaw is titled is a MacGuffin, a device that triggers the central thrust of the plot but is ultimately less important than the people it affects. Becky, who arrives late in the first act, seems to lack a real identify, her words and actions merely reflections of the light generated by the two characters about whom Gionfriddo truly cares: Suzanna, a touchingly neurotic graduate student of psychology, and Max, her adopted brother and the person entrusted with taking care of her financially after the death of their father.

But rather than a flaw in Gionfriddo’s play, the absence of a rich inner life in her play’s titular character is actually a testament to the playwright’s immense talents. In creating a character who exists only because of her relationship to the play’s most fleshed-out characters, Gionfriddo masterfully dramatizes the main questions of her deceptively deep play: What responsibility, if any, do we truly have to the people in our lives, and is the insatiable quest for intimacy in personal relationships something that truly enriches the relationship or winds up hindering it?

Gionfriddo doesn’t answer those questions, nor should she; a playwright’s chief responsibility is raising questions, not spoon-feeding answers. And her ability to call into question the ambiguous, taxing nature of human relationships in a play that could’ve been just another in a long line of overly talky pieces featuring impossibly articulate, hyper-intelligent characters signals a dramatist of major proportion.

The play, set in contemporary Rhode Island, begins a year ago. Dad has just died, and it turns out he has squandered most of the family’s savings, leaving Suzanna (an overly dramatic stress-case turned eminently likeable by Tessa Auberjonois) and her mom, Susan (a pitch-perfect Barbara Tarbuck), to ask that most horrifying of questions well-off people sometimes must face: How poor are we?

Not that poor, says Max (Brian Avers), adopted by the family when he was 10 and now a successful money manager. But they’re not wealthy anymore, either.

We spring forward a year: Suzanna is married to Andrew (Graham Michael Hamilton), a writer who pays their bills through managing an office (and who cries while watching porn. Read: pussy!). Max is still single and still taking care of Susan’s finances. For some strange reason, Suzanna and Andrew decide to match the class-conscious Max with a mooncalf named Becky (an intensely personless Angela Goethals), who works in Andrew’s office.

The blind date seems doomed from the start: Becky, while attractive, has nothing in common intellectually or socially with Max, who teases and bullies her in their initial conversation. But supporting the adage that we attract what we are even if we don’t like who we are, there is a connection between Becky and Max that doesn’t become truly apparent until the play’s final, tension-riddled moments.

As plots go, it’s hardly edge-of-your-seat, gripping fare. But guided rapidly and without unnecessary directorial flourish by Pam MacKinnon, it becomes more about Max. That’s good because Max gets, by far, the funniest and most cutting of lines; he is the most interesting character onstage.

Avers’ performance seems to ungainly stick out at first: Everything he does calls attention to his character, from his loud, blustery voice to his rapid, angular movements. He seems stagy and forced, as if he’s operating in his own world for most of the time. But as the play progresses, we see that Max truly does live in his own world, one he doesn’t particularly like. And what seems like incessant mugging is actually a sadly articulate call for attention. It’s a remarkable performance, all the more striking because it’s perfectly easy to both loathe and admire Max in the same instant.

It’s hard to get a clear handle on the character. In that regard, he’s like the others in Becky Shaw—as well as the play itself. And that’s Gionfriddo’s most masterful stroke. Characters experience crystalline moments of self-awareness, but in their next action, they betray the empowerment they have just gained. They appear to know what they want and know what they’re doing to prevent that from happening, but they just can’t seem to truly change.

Though characters talk a great deal about feelings and relationships and empathy and compassion, ultimately, that’s all it is: talk. And that doesn’t give Becky Shaw a tidy resolution; you won’t walk out of the theater convinced that any character has truly learned anything substantial. But you do get the sense they are keenly alive and, in their own clumsy, self-absorbed fashion, doing what the rest of us are doing: trying their best with what they have to make sense of that most senseless of X factors, human behavior.

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