Thursday, January 15, 2009

Not Too Sharp

Becky Shaw
Written by Gina Gionfriddo
Directed by Peter DuBois
Starring David Wilson Barnes, Emily Bergl, Kelly Bishop, Annie Parisse, Thomas Sadoski

Performances from December 16 to March 15, 2009
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street

Parisse in Becky Shaw
(photo: Joan Marcus)
With a title alluding to the anti-heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic 18th century novel Vanity Fair (Becky Sharp) and the greatest comic dramatist of the 20th century (Bernard Shaw), Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw has lofty aspirations: attacking money-based amorality with sharp, witty barbs.

While Becky Shaw’s jaundiced exploration of its bitterly selfish characters is often pointed, it’s also shrilly superficial–not least in its haphazard plot and flimsy motivation. After her dad dies, psychology student Suzanna finds herself adrift, first falling into the arms of her adopted brother Max–who oversees the family’s finances and cleans up all legal messes–then, on a whim, marrying Andrew, a would-be writer she meets on the skiing trip she takes to get away from her grief. The always-derisive Max loathes this new man who has come between them, while Suzanna’s nonplused mother Susan currently carries on with the much younger Lester since her husband’s death.

Into the ultimate dysfunctional family comes Becky, a temp employee working in Andrew’s office: Andrew and Suzanna set up Becky and Max on a disastrous blind date, the fallout from which threatens to destroy relationships precariously built on emotional quicksand.

Too bad that Gionfriddo–who writes for TV’s Law and Order–concentrates more on the barbed witticisms and strained epigrams her characters spit out than in developing and making believable their characterizations and relationships. Indeed, straining credulity is high on the playwright’s to-do list: hence, Becky (the charmingly Sandra Bullock-ish Annie Parisse) is innocently naive and improbably cunning, sometimes simultaneously; when she threatens Max in a Starbucks a few days after their nearly fatal first date, it comes out of nowhere, occurring simply so Becky can be a worthy adversary for the bitchy, always nasty and arrogant Max, who, as embodied by David Wilson Barnes, spits out his snarly dialogue like a more cynical and bitchier version of Jack, the lovable gay Will and Grace sidekick.

Would the intelligent and sensible Suzanna get hitched so quickly to Andrew and still have non-sisterly feelings for porn-loving Max? Is Andrew so saintly that he would feel no attachment to Becky, even after his marriage is on the ropes? Would take-no-prisoners Susan, the family matriarch, really be content with the low-rent gigolo Lester? Most gallingly, for all the rat-a-tat retorts, no one onstage is as fascinating as the unseen but pivotal Dad and Lester, and it’s to Gionfriddo’s discredit that her play seems a first draft for a richer comic exploration of dissolving family relations.

Emily Bergl (Suzanna), Kelly Bishop (Susan) and Thomas Sadoski (Andrew) round out a first-rate cast of interpreters of Gionfriddo’s cardboard creations; Peter DuBois’ fleet direction keeps questions about the play’s flimsiness at bay until after the curtain call. The near-constant quips show that Gionfriddo has talent to spare, but somewhere between the Scylla of Becky Sharp and the Charybdis of Bernard Shaw, her Becky Shaw runs aground.

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