By Pat Launer
Becky Shaw isn’t the lead character in the dark comedy that bears her name. But she may be the most enigmatic. Is she just a loser, an awkward, often inappropriate, sadsack single woman who’s seen more than her share of misery? Or is she a grasper (like Becky Sharp, the Thackeray character from “Vanity Fair” who inspired her), a con artist and consummate manipulator? Even the ambiguous final moment doesn’t provide a definitive answer.
Gina Gionfriddo is a provocateur, a multi-award-winning playwright who’s also an esteemed TV writer/producer, for “House of Cards” and “Law and Order.” Hopefully, she won’t abandon her first writing passion. “Becky Shaw” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
So it’s a major coup that a small community theater like Patio Playhouse snagged the San Diego premiere.
It’s a modest but impressive affair, simply but cleverly designed and slickly directed by Samantha Hope Goldstein, who also created (with David Newman) the outstanding between-scene soundscape, which features standards superbly covered by a wide array of female voices, ranging from Doris Day to Lady Gaga (whose “Bang Bang” is a sultry knockout).
The smart, snide bickering begins at the outset, with Max (Jeremy David Schaeg) and Suzanna (Amy Stanley) on a bed, verbally duking it out. They seem like squabbling marrieds, but it turns out they’re almost-siblings, her father having adopted him early on. Alas, their co-dependent, symbiotic relationship goes a lot further and deeper. Too far, it turns out, on this New York night (the director has chosen to set the piece in 2009).
By the next scene, eight months later, Suzanna is married and Max is none too happy. Her brand-new husband, Andrew (Samuel Young), a nice guy but an enabler, isn’t too thrilled with Max, either. They glare at each other like circling wolves.
So the couple decides to fix Max up with a woman at Andrew’s work. This is the first date from hell; the events and their aftermath just won’t go away. Neither will Suzanna’s controlling mother, who’s described as a pretty hateful harridan (though Dianne Smith Gray doesn’t play her anything like that; she seems more reasonable than the rest of the unsavory characters).
Conflict is the name of the game in this family, sprinkled with high drama and histrionics. Many brutal, toxic things are said (Beware: the language is as rough as the scabrous sentiments).
What’s most interesting is that the moral ground keeps shifting, and who’s most culpable — or contemptible — at any given moment changes within the nine fast-moving, often-acidic scenes. There are some hair-raising comments about marriage (“Prostitution, marriage, same thing.” Or “He made me happy, and happiness made me mean.” Try this, on the subject of love: “Anything that matters has the potential to hurt”).
There are numerous little revelations scattered throughout the text. The implication is that everyone is flawed and full of contradictions, trust is elusive or deceptive, and truth may be overrated (“You think marriage and family require absolute honesty; they do not,” Suzanna’s mother blithely asserts. “If you look hard enough at anything or anyone, you’ll be revolted at what you see”).
If you’re looking for a sweet, superficial rom-com, look elsewhere. Patio Playhouse is delivering a solid, credible production of a multi-layered, intriguing, if often abrasive little play. A tad more nuance in the characterizations would go a long way; some vulnerability in the snarky Max, for example, since he’s the most delicious character. More edge in the mother; less in her daughter. Becky is a bit underwritten, but that helps maintain the partial opacity of the play, which leaves a tantalizing amount to audience imagination.
- “Becky Shaw” runs through June 28 at Patio Playhouse, 116 S. Kalmia St., Escondido
- Performances are Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($10-$18) are available at 760-746-6669 or online at www.patioplayhouse.com
- Running time: 2 hrs. 15 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.