By James Burdick
Gina Gionfriddo’s “grey” comedy, “Becky Shaw,” offers viewers plenty of questionable love advice, but the show’s real take-away comes in the form of razor-sharp satire and cynical commentary. Eric Parness, a graduate student and teaching fellow at Brooklyn College, served as director for the off-kilter play, which ran this past weekend.
The play was set at the New Workshop Theater, in the basement of Whitman Hall. The stage consisted of two small sections on opposite sides of a wall with a gap of empty space in between. The audience was seated on either side of the stage, lending an intimate feel to the performance and a unique perspective for audience members.
“Becky Shaw” takes place several months after the female lead, Suzanna Slater’s (Julie Orkis) father has died. Her adopted brother Max Garrett (Richard McDonald) must coax his disgruntled sister into meeting with their mother, Susan Slater (Stephanie King) so they can discuss the assets of the deceased’s sinking company.
All shades of tension—namely sexual, financial, and ideological—drive the play from it’s exposition. Max, a successful financier, and his sister, a struggling PhD student in psychology, clash on just about every issue that arises. McDonald and Orkis effectively built upon the friction of this tumultuous sibling relationship, successively raising the tension closer and closer to a breaking point as events unfold.
The organic, antagonistic chemistry between Orkis and McDonald, the play’s tentatively-related siblings, was palpable from the first scene, lending itself to slick, sardonic banter. As McDonald rattles off his absurd and cynical two cents in a deadpan tirade, Orkis appears unfazed, not missing a beat with her swift, sarcastic returns. While the show’s humor might not be as dark as other dramatic comedies, it is definitely driven by difficult subject matter and complex characters, so be forewarned.
While her stage time was relatively short, King was equally captivating as the brutally honest mother.
The plot skipped ahead several months after the first act, to a scene set in Providence, Rhode Island. Suzanna is married to an often endearing and at times unbearably sensitive struggling writer, Andrew Porter (Joseph Battaglia).
The play’s namesake, Becky Shaw (Fiona Criddle), makes her first appearance in the next scene as a potential blind date for an unwitting Max. What ensues is one of the funniest scenes I have ever witnessed.
As their incongruent personalities clashed, Max continued in his mode of casual cynicism and emerged as the crowd favorite with his seething commentary on forced small talk. The awkward silences, deliberate timing, and delivery were on point for the entire cast, leaving the room constantly roaring.
The next scene takes place several days after the date which evidently took an unexpected turn. The date and the events therein—which the audience never actually sees—defines the rest of the play and its sudden shift into a darker tone.
Unfortunately, Gionfriddo’s bill does not make the shift without taking some damage, and loses steam in the second act.
There are occasional spells of hilarity thereafter, but a somber tone dominates most of the remainder of the play, and what follows pales in comparison to the display Gionfriddo’s comedic prowess in the first act
All the characters are (for their own reasons) at least partially in the wrong, with few redeeming qualities and a surplus of grating ones. I found it difficult to sympathize with anyone.
While her role is not a comedic one, Criddle’s performance as Becky Shaw was the most impressive of the play’s more dramatic half. Criddle had a commanding presence on stage and was the most intriguing character in the remainder of the play.
Despite Criddle’s outstanding performance, the dramatic dialogue often came across inorganic and even pulled me out of the story a few times. One scene in which Max uses two walls as a heavy-handed metaphor for life seemed particularly contrived.
By the end of the performance, I found myself empathizing most with the mother, Susan. I felt very much like her at the play’s close: as an old person amidst a group of squabbling youngsters.
The play, as a whole, was quite successful in spite of its setbacks. While the second act was not as good as the first, it was by no stretch of the imagination bad. The story was still engaging and I still had a vested interest in what was happening to these characters despite their many flaws. I found the last scene was particularly moving, as Max lets his mask fall for a moment to express his true feelings.
In the end, “Becky Shaw” was a provocative production that proved greater than the sum of its parts.