By Manning Harris
The characters in Gina Gionfriddo’s brilliant dark comedy of non-manners “Becky Shaw,” now playing at Actor’s Express through September 25, are by turns detestable, contradictory, maddening, hilarious, and irresistible. 60 years ago Kinsey wrote that “it is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories.” Ms. Gionfriddo understands that perfectly, and any attempt to categorize her characters is doomed to failure. Someone has said they are incredibly delightful and extremely slippery; Director Freddie Ashley skillfully guides his actors in this fun house of questionable morals.
Max (Andrew Benator), a financial manager, is the adopted brother and friend/advisor of Suzanna (Jill Hames); they have a relationship of unusual closeness. Suzanna sets up a date between Max and Becky Shaw (Veronika Duerr) that turns from a “Bad Romance” to the date from hell, ending in a police station and a suicide attempt.
Meanwhile, Andrew (Tony Larkin), is Suzanna’s nurturing, would-be writer husband; while Susan (Kathi Welch) is Suzanna’s acid-tongued mother, afflicted with multiple sclerosis and a penchant for brutal honesty that spares no one, including herself: “You will never hear me buy into any of this new age nonsense about my illness being a gift.” She further tells Suzanna, who’s got doubts about her husband, that “absolute honesty in a relationship is a prescription for misery.” There is acerbic commentary by everybody about everybody. Max, extremely well played by Andrew Benator, takes top honors in this field. You want to hate him but can’t, because he’s hugely entertaining.
Veronika Duerr, who plays Becky, possesses one of the theatre’s rarest gifts: a genuine comedy sense. Her entrance and opening minutes onstage are mesmerizing: You watch her breathlessly to see what she’ll say or do next. Becky is awkward, nervous, vulnerable and completely alive. It’s sort of like Streisand’s opening minutes in “Funny Girl” (on the Broadway stage, thank you; yes, I’m that old); it’s one of the theatre’s gifts that great moments stay with you forever. But then we discover that Becky has a few thorny tricks up her sleeve as well. (Watch that categorizing; it doesn’t work here!)
It’s difficult to write about “Becky Shaw” because it illustrates so well what Tennessee Williams said a real play shows: “that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” You have to see it. Incidentally, the show has a real New York flavor about it; I think Woody Allen would like it very much.
It’s a strong cast, with the aforementioned Mr. Benator and Ms. Duerr outstanding.
Kat Conley’s set is very serviceable, either two-star or three-star, depending on your point of view (a little inside joke here—again, see this play). I was a bit distracted by the slow fade-outs to scenes because you can see the guys changing the set while the actors have barely finished their lines and are still visible. It detracts from the moment just created—I’m sure this can easily be fixed.
“Becky Shaw” premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville, where Charles Isherwood of the New York Times pronounced it “suspenseful, witty and infused with an unsettling sense of the potential for psychic disaster inherent in almost any close relationship.” I agree.
Actor’s Express has started the 2010-2011 Atlanta theatre season for us with this cracking good play. It runs through September 25.