The cast of Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw includes (from left) Liz Sklar, Brian Robert Burns, Lorri Holt, Lauren English and Lee Dolson. Below: Burns and English have an uncomfortable second non-date. Photos by Jessica Palopoli
The humor is in direct proportion to the discomfort in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, now in its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse.
If David Mamet were good at anything other than provocation and crisp dialogue, he might write something as entertaining and as distressing as Becky Shaw, a smart, incisive and very funny play that, despite its lack of focus, makes for a beguiling evening of theater.
By lack of focus I mean that Gionfriddo doesn’t delineate protagonist or antagonist. Even though the title of the play belongs to one character, the playwright’s aim seems much broader – like how power works between family members, between men and women and between the seemingly weak and the seemingly strong. She’s interested in highly functional dysfunctional people, which is to say, just about everybody.
Her targets here are members of an extended family: the matriarch, Susan (Lorri Holt), who is dealing with MS; Suzanna (Liz Sklar), the fragile adult daughter whose life is a mess; and Max (Brian Robert Burns) the sort-of adopted son who makes millions by managing the fortunes of others.
We meet this trio several months after the deal of Susan’s husband and Suzanna’s father. Family secrets and economic misfortune are the order of the day, but so are mother-daughter feuds and romantic liaisons probably best left outside the family unit.
Gionfriddo is a zesty writer with a taste for zingers, especially for the characters of Max and Susan, both brilliantly played with full-throttle, zinger-flinging relish by Burns and Holt respectively. Here’s Max on how to deal with death and still wield power: “Grieve. Be sad. But do it with a big dick.” On the same subject, Susan says the death of her husband, an elderly man who lived a full life and died peacefully “is not a loss. It’s a transition.”
With Sklar’s Suzanna, you want to make her hold still and take some deep breaths in an attempt to get a hold of herself, but she teeters through the play’s two-plus hours on the verge (and just on the other side) of nervous collapse and blinding rage.
As months go by, new people enter the fray who challenge the wicked family balance. Andrew (Lee Dolson) brings, as Max describes it in his customarily sarcastic way, an “indie rock” vibe to the clan, and his apparent concern for all creatures great and small is just another mask for his own particular damage.
And then there’s Becky Shaw (Lauren English), a possibly pathetic or possibly crafty (or more likely both) young woman whose life has taken some unfortunate turns and now finds herself at the mercy of both Max and Andrew. One thing we could have told Becky that no one in the play bothered to is this: never go on a blind date with Max, the man who sees marriage and prostitution as one and the same thing and the man who says, “Love is a happy by-product of use.”
English has a tricky role because we’re never quite sure about Becky and her reality. But this much is sure: English is extraordinary in the role. Compassionate and crazy-making, she turns the play on its ear, just as she should. There’s a moment when all Becky does is walk on stage, and the audience has a collective reaction just to her presence. That’s a testament to the character Gionfriddo has written and the skill with which English brings her to life.
As directed by Amy Glazer, Becky Shaw is a comedy of discomfort, a drama of ridiculous people. There’s a real-life edge to these people, both in Gionfriddo’s script and Glazer’s finely tuned cast. It’s not exactly docu-drama, but then again it wouldn’t be nearly as funny or as intriguing if it were. There’s real craft here in dissecting people we might be happy to dismiss but can’t because they’re too familiar.
The craft extends to Bill English’s set, which, with a few spins of the turntable, goes from a Manhattan hotel room to a posh Florida home to a grimy studio apartment in Providence, R.I. And congratulations to costume designer Miyuki Bierlein for finding a dress that, when described as a birthday cake, gets a laugh but also makes you feel sorry for the woman wearing it.
At one point, Max, who turns out to be the play’s most fascinating character, wonders why anyone would choose “an ugly reality over a beautiful fiction,” and it’s a good question. Becky Shaw has both in it, and that makes for a fascinating and highly entertaining play.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw continues through March 10 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.