Pop Quiz. Becky Shaw is:
a) your old college roommate who reconnected with you on Facebook
b) your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend – who still has her ski boots in his closet
c) your mother’s bingo partner who keeps asking if you want to be fixed up with her recently divorced son
The answer is actually: d) the play I saw recently, written by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Peter DuBois and currently being produced at the 2econd Stage Theatre (307 West 43rd Street off Eighth Avenue).
Becky Shaw won the Humana award, and that’s great. Personally, I’m a little confused at how this badly paced, one-hour-too-long play inspired garlands and accolades from any organized group that votes on such things. Because the organized group audience I was a part of last week thought it was more worthy of raised eyebrows, shakes of the head, and confused looks. A direct quote from the woman in front of me as the lights came up after Act One: “Well … maybe the second act won’t be so bad …”. If there hadn’t been a blizzard outside, I think more people would have opted for a mid-show exit and a drink at the nearest bar rather than sit through the second half of this meandering plot.
Now, to be fair, the entire cast is great; masterful in fact, and each actor gives it their all. Annie Parisse as Becky is wonderful to watch, and gets Becky’s tottering-on-the-edge personality just right. I’ve actually known women like Becky Shaw … women who go from zero to sixty (or, in dating terms, from “first date” to “anticipating a marriage proposal”) within a week. It’s scary to see, and (I’m sure) even scarier to date. But let’s back track a little since Becky doesn’t even come on the scene till well into the first act.
First up is Suzanna (Emily Bergl) and Max (David Wilson Barnes). From their first conversation, we’re clued into the fact that this scene is going to be a Mad Libs exercise in Exposition 101.
Max: What did I tell you about doing that [random activity here] …
Suzanna: You told me to never [random activity here] because I always [negative reaction here].
Max: And WHY do you always [negative reaction here]?
Suzanna: Because ever since we [random childhood memory here] and you told me [random clue to their relationship here] I promised I would never [random activity here] again.
Max: Right! Because I always wind up [random "savior" act here] and then you [random attention getting stunt here] and you never learn your lesson and do it again and that pisses me off.
Suzanna: [Clue to the relationship, backed up by an anecdote]
Max: [Reaction to clue, backed up by another anecdote]
I was so distracted by the excruciating exposition that I started counting every time someone said “Remember when you …” or “What was that thing you always say…?” or “Tell that story again about why you …”. And then I lost count.
In an effort to make these conversations seem more realistic Ms. Gionfriddo peppers her dialog with non-sequiturs (too disposable to classify as sub-plots) such as: Suzanna’s father may or may not have been gay. Really? And? Nothing. He just may have. We’ll hear about it later, but it won’t matter much. Suzanna and her mom are broke. Oh No! And? Nothing. They just are. Max always watches porn. Wow! And? Nothing. It sets him apart from Andrew (Thomas Sadoski) because ” … porn makes Andrew cry!” Does porn stand for a metaphor that Max is reserved, distant, unwilling to commit? Yup. But we already figured out his flaws. From all that exposition.
The plot rolls forward a bit when Suzanna, now married to Andrew (whom she met, courted and married within months) decides to set up porn-loving, distant, cold, unwilling-to-commit Max with twittery, skittish, bird-like, quirky Becky Shaw. Max and Becky meet awkwardly, go off on their date cautiously, and we connect back up with them post-date, as Becky strangely announces to the audience, “Something awful happened on my date with Max …”
This “something awful” seems to tip Becky’s scales and she goes from just nervously skittish to full-blown clingy suicidal. She erupts her craziness on all those around her … though at the moment the only person who can stomach her is I’ll-Save-You!-Andrew. Perhaps the oddest non sequitur occurs when Becky, eager to explain to Andrew why she’s so devastated by events that happened on her date, blurts out some strange rant that is uncomfortable and painful to watch. And not the way watching that guy from Silence of the Lambs was uncomfortable. No … this rant just seems racist, and therefore insulting, since it doesn’t do anything with the harsh notions it brings forth, just tosses them on your doorstep like a Shop Rite Sunday Circular and then moves on. I’d like to think the rant was written to make Becky seem more complex and therefore even more unbalanced. Or that it was written to explain why she’s particularly fragile at the moment. But again … already got that. To me, the rant comes across as controversial for controversy’s sake. I’m not going the safe route! seems to be Ms. Gionfriddo’s mantra. Watch out! I’m edgy! You say edgy, I say trying-too-hard.
This specifically comes across in all the cursing. This isn’t ambient Sopranos-style cursing, this just sounds silly and actually takes away from the rhythm of the scenes. Mind you, I can toss salty sailor talk around with the best of them. But lines like (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) … “Just because you can stick your head in the bowl after you shit, doesn’t mean you should” … or “Women should use their charms to lure men the way pedophiles use candy to lure children …” were so unnecessarily crude (I’m edgy!) that it drew gasps of disapproval from the audience. On Family Guy, they’d find a way to make those lines work. In Becky Shaw, they don’t work at all.
So, what, in fact, is this play supposed to be about? Is it about Max and Suzanna, who grew up together, know each other inside and out, but can’t tell if their relationship should be classified as brother and sister or childhood sweethearts? (Shades of Dirty Sexy Money – think Karen Darling and Nick George). Is it about Suzanna’s husband Andrew who only loves a woman when she needs fixing? (He starts off fixing Suzanna who reminds him of “blood on snow”, then moves on to “saving” Becky because Suzanna seems healed.) Is it about how affairs of the heart can be more detrimental to a marriage than toss-away one night stands? Or is it really about, as the title tells us, Becky Shaw, who’s so screwed up that she spends her days parroting self-help books and her nights having panic attacks … when she’s not initiating sex with strangers and then stalking them?
Well, whatever the point was, to me this play was all about stringing together long arguments that go nowhere and slapping a title on it. If I wanted to watch people I’m not invested in have an argument about something that doesn’t interest me, I’ll just watch a reality show where, at least, the fights are heavily edited and I can get them in 2 minute doses. At some point during Becky’s rant, Max halts her with an “I DON’T CARE!!!” and the audience exploded in laughter. Quite possibly because he was speaking for all of us. Come on, Becky … give it a rest. None of us care.
The very best part of this play is Susan, Suzanna’s mother. Susan is played with authority and grace by Kelly Bishop, one of my very favorite actresses. Unfortunately she’s in perhaps five minutes of the first act, and then just comes back at the end to give the other characters something to do. Unfortunately, she’s also the person who has to try and deliver the “pedophile” line with out making the audience cringe or gasp. She does an amazing job with her role, but when you come right down to it, this show is in bad need of a rewrite — by another writer.
Gina Gionfriddo is seasoned writer, she’s written numerous plays (After Ashley, U.S. Drag, Guinevere among others) and has received several awards (An Obie, A Guggenheim Fellowship, The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and a few others). She’s even taught writing at several colleges; most notably Brown University. She’s currently a writer for “Law & Order”, where plots need to unfold quickly and everything needs to be wrapped up in 40 commercial-free minutes. Becky Shaw seems to be the place where she rebels against this discipline, taking her time while simultaneously robbing us of ours.
Now, if all this still makes Becky Shaw sound appealing, please … call her for a first date. Um, I mean, reservations. But I’d rather side with Max, who was forced to spend one evening with Becky Shaw and would just as well never think of her ever again.
Becky Shaw is currently running at 2econd Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street (off Eighth Avenue) and will run through February 1, 2008. Call (212) 246-4422 or visit 2ST.com for more information.