WARREN – Who is Becky Shaw? She’s the title character of a play, and while you may hope never to meet a real Becky, “Becky Shaw,” the play, is a treasure.
Written by Gina Gionfriddo, a graduate of the master’s degree playwriting program at Brown University, the play was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize – and it is set in Providence.
There’s even a joke about the Roe-Dieland accent, which tells you this is a funny play, but it has a dark side, which often is uncomfortably -- yet hilariously -- funny.
The scintillating production currently at 2nd Story Theatre makes the most of both the dark and the light, and long after you’ve left the theater, you’ll still be talking about “Becky Shaw,” and Becky Shaw.
Interestingly, it takes a while for the title character to appear. We’re first introduced to the triumvirate of Susan, her daughter Suzanna and adopted son, Max, and their disparate ways of coping with a life-altering event: the death of Suzanna’s father.
As emotional as inward-looking as Suzanna is – she is, after all, studying for a doctorate in psychology -- Max is pragmatic. He’s a professional financial advisor, and it has fallen to him to take care of the women and what’s left of the family’s money.
Susan, meanwhile, is framing her husband’s death in terms of her own needs; she has multiple sclerosis and needs someone to help her.
Along the way, we see that the family characteristic they all share is an acid tongue, and clearly, there is more than brother-sister feeling between Max and Suzanna. But then we fast-forward about year and find Suzanna has married, Susan has a questionable boyfriend, and Max is still single, cynical and, actually, content with all that.
However, Suzanna and her new husband, Andrew, have arranged a blind date for Max with a temp at Andrew’s office named Becky Shaw. Andrew knows Becky is a needy soul, but she arrives under prepared – and comically over dressed -- for the situation, and the date goes awry in ways that affect events for the rest of the play.
Experiencing the unexpected directions the story takes is the pleasure in seeing something new, but suffice it to say, neither the playwright nor director Ed Shea wastes a moment or a personality quirk in directing your attention.
For her part, Gionfriddo shows a sharp eye for human nature, distilled as it may be in these characters. Just for example, as much as Suzanna, the 30-something psych major, values total honesty in her marriage, the older Susan says too much of that good thing is a recipe for disaster, that marriages are allowed “pockets of mystery.”
Who is right? Your opinions about their opinions – and about the characters themselves – shift continuously as the play develops. Are Suzanna’s views just psycho-babble? Is Susan too pragmatic? Is Max dependable or controlling?
Gionfriddo gives us lots to talk about, and we haven’t even mentioned Becky yet. She’s 35 years old, without a real job or money, and describes herself as feeling like a leaf blown around by the wind. But she has a lot of tools in her bag of personality disorders, and she’s not so fragile that she won’t use them in pursuit of what she wants.
Tall, blonde and sweet-faced Hillary Parker looks the part of Becky Shaw, but she also can switch with scary speed between victim and whatever else Becky is, possibly con artist.
As the acerbic Susan, Paula Faber arches her eyebrows and tosses off stinging observations with perfect timing, while Tim White is spot on as the earnestly sensitive but feckless Andrew.
While the play is titled “Becky Shaw,” it’s about Suzanna and Max, and Rachel Morris and Ara Boghigian are flawless. They’re like magnets, attracted to one another in one alignment, repelling each other when realigned, and believable in every interaction.
It’s a visual of the self-confident Max reduced to hair-pulling frustration in the face of Becky’s persistence that is one of the most memorable in the show.
Creating that image for the audience is an example of how Shea, the director, works as a visual artist as well as storyteller in his directing. Even the minimalist set, just four pieces of a sectional sofa that are rearranged between scenes, reflects his vision: our shifting feelings about the characters are reflected in the constantly rearranged furniture.
“Becky Shaw” is fresh, contemporary, funny, and will provoke lots of discussion. Don’t miss it.
“Becky Shaw” is on stage through Feb. 20 at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St. Tickets are $27 and available at the box office, by calling (401) 247-4200 or e-mailing boxoffice@2ndStoryTheatre.com .
A “Shrink Wrap” discussion with Dr. Rendueles Villalba follows Friday’s 8 p.m. performance and looks at the play and the playwright from a psychological perspective.
A “Culture Gulch” discussion with Tom Roberts follows Saturday’s 8 p.m. performance and puts the play in a current cultural framework
The Humanities discussion with Eileen Warburton, Ph.D., will be held after Sunday’s 3 p.m. matinee. Discussions are included in the ticket price.
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