A hearty laugh is never far away in Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw, a dark modern comedy of manners that opened last night at Second Stage Theatre.
Gionfriddo's title character doesn't appear until late in the first act. Until she does, we met a marvelously eccentric group of characters, including the steely and passive aggressive Susan (Kelly Bishop), who's recently widowed, fighting MS and dating her much younger house painter. Susan's ability to so rapidly move on with her life appalls her psychology graduate student daughter Suzanna (made somehow neurotically enchanting by Emily Bergl), who after four months still grieves her father's death and battles almost clinical depression over it. When things get really bad for Suzanna, she turns to Max (David Wilson Barnes), who was raised essentially as her adopted brother and who now acts as the family's financial consultant.
Max's ability to clinically focus on everything but emotions has made him a success as a businessman, but it means he's ill-prepared to deal with Suzanna's needs. He believes that if she simply finds something to do, she'll be able to pull herself together. She takes his advice and goes on a ski vacation where she meets Andrew (Thomas Sadoski in a warmly kooky turn), Max's antithesis, a touchy-feely writer, whom Suzanna almost instantly marries. It's through Andrew that the soft-spoken and desperately needy Becky (a perfectly calibrated turn from Annie Parisse) enters the scene. She's working as a temp at Andrew's day job, and misguidedly, Andrew and Suzanna decide that she would make a perfect blind date for Max. As if the mismatch of the two were not enough of a recipe for disaster, their first evening together is interrupted by a robbery, which sends Becky and, in turn, all of those around her, reeling.
Gionfriddo's comedy crackles with deliciously funny epigrams – many of which spring from Susan, a sort of 21st century Lady Bracknell who's having to deal with the fact that her husband has left her in dire financial straits. Bishop delivers each choice line with precision and dry aplomb. Max gets an equal number of choice zingers and, like Bishop, Barnes' delivery is pitch-perfect.
These two characters' almost icy view of the world and relationships contrasts beautifully, and often hilariously, with they way in which the other characters approach life. Interestingly though, even as audiences laugh, they feel for these characters and also find themselves swept up in the mystery of why Becky behaves the way she does. Are her actions – which begin with just incessant calls to Max following their disastrous date – motivated out of neediness or is she some sort of psychopath? Perhaps most important, the way the others treat Becky (and there are surprises to be found here and elsewhere) and one another make theatergoers consider the nature of empathy, kindness and love.
Director Peter DuBois' staging of unfolds with a grand fluidity thanks to the sliding panels and units from scenic designer Derek McLane which, lit with care by David Weiner, take theatergoers from New York to Providence and ultimately to Susan's opulent home in Virginia. DuBois' work, with its exceptional attention to detail, does not, however, completely mitigate some of Gionfriddo's over-plotting and writing in the second act, but it's of little matter. After a brief lull, the production rights itself marvelously, and theatergoers leave satisfied with a lot to discuss: not only what Becky's true nature may or may not be, but also which of Gionfriddo's one-liners was funniest.
---- Andy Propst
Becky Shaw plays at Second Stage Theatre (307 West 43rd Street). Performances are Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday at 2 and 8pm; Thurs. & Fri. at 8pm; Saturday at 2 and 8pm; and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $70.00 and can be purchased by calling 212-246-4422 or by visiting www.2st.com.