There’s a lot of neurosis going around in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, and the result is one of the funniest, quirkiest, wisest plays in years. What a feast for a therapist: there’s Suzanna, who thinks she can whine her way to happiness, and Max, the super-cynic who believes in ruthless honesty. There’s Andrew, whose Messiah complex makes him cry when he sees pornography, and middle-aged Susan, who advises damaged people how to lie their way to love. And then there’s Becky: a dropout from Brown, a reject from romance, a 35-year-old temp who’s so desperate for a relationship, she’s willing to believe that the man who screwed her and left her, who offered her money after sex, who won’t answer her phone calls, would probably have fallen for her if only they hadn’t been robbed at gunpoint.
Put these five odd ducks together, let them follow all their worst instincts, and you get a painfully candid, ultimately hilarious look at America in the 21st century: lurching out of control, careening into the void. At least we’ll go out laughing. The play begins with an encounter between Suzanna and Max, and though it’s relatively peaceful, it helps set the mood for the insanity to come. Truth-teller Max is Suzanna’s adoptive brother, an angry money manager who’s been called in to review the family’s finances now that patriarch Richard is dead. But there’s something else going on between Suzanna and Max — a sexual attraction that neither dares mention, but that has them cuddling and snuggling in a not-so-innocent manner.
In the next scene, Suzanna’s married to Andrew, a hyper-sensitive aspiring writer with distinct milquetoast tendencies, and they’re about to have dinner with Max and his needy blind date Becky. From the moment Becky arrives, Max is on the verbal attack. But she’s so lonely, she barely notices it, and when Suzanna privately counsels her, “Don’t show him any weakness,” she still doesn’t guess what kind of mess she’s about to get into.
What comes next is that mess: robbery and sex and neediness and meanness, Suzanna’s impassioned recriminations, Andrew’s self-image as a rescuer of women, Susan’s devotion to her house painter/lover Lester… And keeping it fascinating is just about everyone’s tendency to behave against type when pushed to the wall. Even Becky — tender, suicidal Becky — knows how to turn the tables when events aren’t coming along. And even Max, as well-defended as he thinks he is, isn’t quite impregnable.
As directed by Larry Silverberg, this freeFall Theatre production is top-notch. (Well, there are those interminable scene changes. But aside from that.) Though the comedy is named for Becky, the immoral center of the action is really frightening Max, played with all appropriate viciousness by Keith Edie. Without moderating Max’s obnoxiousness, Edie makes sure that we see the price that Max pays for it, how underneath the cold exterior is a severely hurt abandoned child. In Natalie Symons’ Becky, Max finds a surprisingly worthy opponent. Symons plays Becky as a wreck with a smile, a woman who for all her bad hands refuses to stop hoping that life will finally deal her aces (or maybe she’ll just commandeer the deck).
As Andrew, the consistently impressive Jim Sorensen once again shows why Bay area theater has been looking up since he decided to move here. Sorensen’s Andrew is a loving husband with a secret: he thinks women are the ocean and he’s a lifeguard. Weak at most moments and then surprisingly strong, the perfect husband and a perfect ass, Sorensen plays this complex role with almost clinical attention to detail. And Christina DeRosier as Suzanna is a nagging, fretting female, proud to have married a man who’s not a psychopath, but dependent on Max in ways which can’t, finally, be healthy. Only Marsha Cox, as Suzanna’s mother Susan, isn’t entirely convincing, though her character’s determination not to be defeated by multiple sclerosis is nicely communicated.
The many sets, designed by Eric Davis, are backed by huge photographs of the show’s five performers, and two screens on either side of the stage announce the locale of each segment (New York, Providence, Boston, or Richmond) and provide some video of those cities along with magazine covers and other artwork. Davis is also the show’s intelligent costumer.
Anyway, this one defies augury. Don’t even imagine you can guess where it’s going.
Just buy a ticket and take a seat. And prepare for some surprises.
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