Becky Shaw turns banal truisms about love and family on their heads

The Slater family in Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw comprises three odd, bitter and unhappy people who nonetheless live in uneasy equilibrium until Becky Shaw enters their lives through the always-dangerous mechanism of a blind date. Suzanna is relatively sane but obsessed with horror movies; as the play opens, she's mourning the death of her father. Max was taken in by Suzanna's parents at the age of ten when his own mother died — an act that gets construed in the script as variously manipulative and charitable. He is a ruthless, literal-minded financier who wants Suzanna to get over her grief, since four months (or three, or five — none of the characters can keep time straight) is quite long enough to mourn a dead parent. And then there's monstrous widowed mother Susan, who sees herself as a pragmatist and lives with a shiftless and much younger man. The family is not entirely broke, but no longer entirely comfortable, either, and it's up to Max to keep everyone going. He gets no gratitude from Susan — but something rather more than gratitude from not-quite-sister Suzanna.

By the second scene, though, repelled by Max's coldness, Suzanna has married sweet-natured Andrew, who is happy being a barista, cares nothing about money and wants to write a novel. They decide to set up Max with Andrew's hapless co-worker, Becky Shaw. Becky is one of those ghastly helpless people whose weakness easily becomes a vortex sucking in anyone who tries to help her. Since Max is a blind user of people, the two of them really don't need a mugger to turn their date into a disaster — but that's what they get.

Gionfriddo's dialogue is smart and funny, with lots of lines that defy convention and tread on our tenderest toes. More than once, someone observes that lying can be "the most humane thing you can do." Many of Max's observations — he talks about relationships as "a deal between people" and mocks those who protest wars they can't do anything about — bear seeds of truth, but Susan, who's given to uttering lofty Lady Bracknell-sounding aphorisms with tremendous certitude, sometimes hits home ("Goodness and incompetence quite often go hand in hand") and sometimes, as when she mocks the idea of honesty and communication in relationships, illustrates only her own incomplete humanity.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed this Curious Theatre production, I wasn't quite sure what Becky Shaw was about at the core. The author has things to say about money and class. She mentions Jane Austen at one point, and the fact that the Slaters are left impoverished by the death of the paterfamilias does jibe with some Austen plots. Becky Shaw works full-time but subsists on peanut butter sandwiches and can't afford a car: Like an Austen heroine, she needs to marry up — and like Thackeray's Becky Sharp, she fully intends to.

Other reviewers have said they felt the moral ground shifting under their feet as they watched the play, but the moral issues didn't strike me as primary, despite all the talk about power shifts and what people owe each other: Max feels he owes Becky nothing, Suzanna that he owes the woman at least a phone call. And Andrew wants to be Becky's savior — a role that, as Gionfriddo makes clear, can be highly suspect in itself. The fact that these ethical dilemmas never really fired my imagination may have been a weakness of the script, or it may have been the way Karen Slack, under the direction of Chip Walton, interpreted the role of Becky. She made the woman so barking mad, so tic-ridden and strange, that any man in his right mind would have bolted at the sight of her.

As matriarch Susan, Billie McBride gives one of her best performances in years: solid, arrogant and unforgiving. This woman trained Max in his ruthlessness, and may have a new protege in Becky. Rachel Fowler's Suzanna is understated and sympathetic, revealing interesting colors as the action unfolds. John Jurcheck makes Andrew just as cloyingly sweet as he's supposed to be. In the hands of Bill Hahn, Max is a triumph of sardonic truth-telling, the performance punctuated by one startling moment of the purest pain and loss.

In a world of banal truisms about love and family, Becky Shaw provides an invigorating blast of fresh air. But despite the literary references and all the portentous comments about death and torture, I couldn't help feeling there was a little less to it than met the eye.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman