Monday, March 15, 2010

All about Becky

Victim or victimizer? Eli James and Wendy Hoopes work it out in Becky Shaw. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Reviewers seem to be confused about Becky Shaw (now at the Huntington through April 4). Gina Gionfriddo's New York hit is funny, they admit - but is it actually any good? People aren't sure about that.

And to tell true, the New York reviews were all over the map, too (the show's hit status derived largely from the NYT's Charles Isherwood, who liked it). But all the critical uncertainty is understandable. Becky Shaw has a solid idea at its center, but its meandering dramatic structure muddles and muddies its themes - so much so that some people haven't been able to perceive said themes at all. What's more, we sense that the muddle isn't accidental; it's intentional. This is a play that wants to keep its big idea a secret.

And why?

To answer that question, we'd have to ponder the current state of American academic playwriting in greater depth than would be wise for any healthy person to do. Suffice to say, however, that Becky Shaw simultaneously reflects, refracts and subverts the dominant mode of How We Write Now.

Or perhaps I should say "How They Write at Brown," as Gionfriddo studied playwriting at Brown University, set Becky Shaw in and around its environs (the eponymous Becky is even a dropout from the school), and devised its themes around the opposition between the mores of sensitive, politically-correct campus life and those of "the real world." Gionfriddo even gets out the old yellow highliter in the last act in case we don't get her point, with characters openly taking aim at what many consider the most liberal school in the Ivy League.

It would seem that the academic-theatrical complex I've often discussed is beginning to go meta, or at least get alarmingly self-conscious. Of course not only Gionfriddo but her director, the Huntington's Peter DuBois, went to Brown, and trendy alumni of the playwriting program once run by Paula Vogel (whose Civil War Christmas also ran at the Huntington) today seem to dominate new play production. Indeed, a kind of "Brown school of playwriting" is much in evidence these days, with an emphasis on feminist or identity politics, loose structures, and a preponderance of quirk and/or whimsical flights of fancy. Some people (myself included) find the School of Brown a little tiresome (to us it's immature, self-indulgent and vapid); a like-minded friend of mine even once opined that "If it's from Brown, flush it down!"

I wouldn't go that far, but it's good to see somebody a bit more hard-headed than Sarah Ruhl emerge from the school's playwriting program. Gionfriddo is clear-eyed about the narcissism of the Brown house style - and of the feminized Brown culture in general - but is also, to be honest, likewise clear-eyed about the brutal, male-dominated Real World. The conflict between these two universes - and the similarity between the forces that drive them - is the heart of both Becky Shaw the character and Becky Shaw the play. And to go a bit further, if I had to guess which side Gionfriddo actually sympathized with in this ongoing culture war, my bet would be on that brutal Real World.

Hence the playwright's muddled structure, I think; Gionfriddo somehow feels she has to hide something from teacher, even as she pokes fun at her school. Or maybe it's that very obsession with being funny that muddies the thematic water - like other Brown playwriting stars, Gionfriddo is better at surface than structure, and sometimes goes to great lengths to work in a good wisecrack; in Becky Shaw, she even devotes a whole character to witty epigrams, which does a lot for the yuk factor but kind of fucks up the play's flow.

That flow comes and goes, through so many odd little eddies, that it takes quite a while before the central quartet of Gionfriddo's play has established itself on stage, and we've understood the theme of the work is their underlying correspondence, rather than their opposition. First, there's Max, the self-possessed young financial manager, who's been adopted by the wealthy family of Suzanna (Keira Naughton), the Slaters, whose patriarch has just dropped dead, leaving them in sharply reduced circumstances. Meanwhile Suzanna's mom, Susan (Maureen Anderman), is digging herself into an even deeper hole with the help of a new boyfriend. Poor Suzanna is, understandably enough, distraught by both her father's death and her new-found debts. Max, however, is brusque and almost brutally efficient, a classic class-A asshole with a motormouth, a taste for porn, and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of tough-guy aphorisms. In short, a real guy's guy's guy's guy. Mom, meanwhile, seems to have checked out in some basic way from having to deal with anything or anyone. Before the first act is over, however, something a little weird has gone down between Suzanna and Max that we can't quite understand - a bit of quirky grief-sex that, though not, I suppose, technically perverse (they're not actually brother and sister, after all), still lets us know that stranger revelations about these two are in the offing.

But before Gionfriddo gets to that, she fast-forwards a few months to Suzanna's new husband, Andrew (Eli James), whom she married in a whirlwind courtship that seems to have been based on mercy sex, too. Next comes the eponymous Becky herself, a blind date set up for Max, who turns out not to be the hard-bodied bad girl we imagine would be right for him, but rather an aging waif in a demurely frilly dress ("You look like a piece of cake," Max snarls), who despite her seeming insecurity lets slip some coolly acute appraisals of the world around her. As with Max and Suzanna, we soon realize that All Is Not As It Seems with Becky.


Got all that? Good, because it's a rather complicated set-up you need to track what comes next: the Date from Hell, and the ensuing Fall-Out. Max and Becky are robbed on their Big Night (at gunpoint), which traumatizes Becky so badly that she begs for more contact with Max, to get to "closure," as she puts it. But Max, despite a brief post-mugging tryst with his date, has dropped her like a rock, and intends to leave her that way. Enter Andrew, the New Age husband, a guy so sensitive he actually cries at porn, who begins to minister to the seemingly stricken victim. And thus threatens his marriage to Suzanna. Who may be more into Max, anyhow.

Got all that? If so, you may have begun to piece together the playwright's amusing theme: that the same selfishness and longing for love are driving both Max's master-of-the-universe act and Becky's victimhood. They're both desperate to be loved, preferably by someone above them in the social register, but they go about it through opposed strategies: Max takes utter care of the Slaters, while declaiming constantly on his own heartlessness; meanwhile Becky lets everyone know how broken and needy she is, all while plotting her next move on the same family. Most amusingly, she understands precisely how to manipulate to her own advantage the kind of college-bred sensitivities rampant at Brown; she's both a victim and a subtle victimizer, and Max alone immediately recognizes her as a predator in his own league. Becky's name reminds us of Becky Sharp, the scheming antiheroine of Vanity Fair who capitalized on her beauty and feminine wiles, and it's amusing to watch Gionfriddo work up a parallel vixen for the age of identity politics - one who ensnares people not with her looks but her lack of looks (Becky always dresses badly, in a klutzily over-feminine way), and not with her charm but instead her vulnerability.

The shock of recognition: the cast of Becky Shaw.

Thackeray, of course, lavished his sardonic attention on Becky Sharp, while Becky Shaw moves mostly behind a veil of mystery which makes us see her as more device than character. Neverthless, this cracked quartet does set up an amusing satire of contemporary mores. The trouble is that Gionfriddo has to rely on a kind of emotional deus ex machina to resolve her plot - she has hubby Andrew make a sudden leap into maturity which isn't really believable, and even happens off-stage. Perhaps it has to, because the playwright has meanwhile become re-involved with Mom, who spouts postmodern epigrams worthy of Wilde (if he had written for Showtime, that is), and whose self-centered wisdom brings down the house, but only re-iterates (instead of further developing) the themes of the play.

Then again, Gionfriddo's real aim may be to simply reveal her underlying correspondences rather than develop them. So what we get is Becky Shaw - a flawed but funny look at the current cult of victimhood that closes just as it gets really interesting (and Becky is left alone with her true double - and target - the icily nasty Max). Your mileage may vary with this production as well as this play, however, because even though everyone in the company is talented, director Peter DuBois hasn't quite teased out the right performances from them to really make the text sing, or sting. Seth Fisher's Max, for instance, is far too cool a customer to really hook us in that mysterious first act; he's definitely hilarious, but his carapace of competence is almost bland - he needs to be a bit more of a hothead, a bit more poisonously male, to truly set off his odd liaison with Suzanna and make us wonder what's really going on beneath his gleaming, powerful hood. Keira Naughton's Suzanna is likewise a bit too calm and collected at first; and thus we find the news that she has married in just a few short months utterly unbelievable. Eli James is a better match to hubby Andrew's crunchy profile, and Wendy Hoopes also manages to somehow put over the weird hiddenness of Becky, even if their big scene together is the oddest in the play. And Huntington vet Maureen Anderman knows just how to serve the hilarious ham Gionfriddo has sliced for Mom - it's simply too bad the character is so obviously peripheral.

It's such flaws that make the Pulitzer Prize nomination for Becky Shaw seem - well, like a reach. Still, I suppose the money question is the following: is Gina Gionfriddo better than Sarah Ruhl? In a word, yes. Becky Shaw may be awkward, but it does come together in its own way, and nobody in it leaps into a parallel universe or builds a house of string. Even though it's from Brown, it may still be a keeper.