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Theater Review: Becky Shaw at 2nd Story

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


The creators of Friends have remarked that for the sitcom's annual Thanksgiving episode, they relished a self-imposed challenge of confining all six central characters to one room for an entire episode. While it was the most difficult episode they wrote all season, they said, it always paid in rich comedic reward.

At 2nd Story Theatre, as the five characters of Gina Gionfriddo's 2008 play, Becky Shaw, move in and out of hotel rooms, cafes, and homes, one awaits that scene where we'll achieve the confrontations and blowing up of all the mines the playwright has set. We wait for a Thanksgiving payoff.

But it never comes.


What forms Becky Shaw's framework, instead, is a string of shrill combat pieces, none of which reveal substance about the play's characters, nor about any kind of human condition they inhabit. This play messes around with pessimism and dysfunction and drapes it in comedic costume, but because Gionfriddo never digs in to show the deeper, more complex aspects of any of her characters, we are left with empty pockets by play's end. You feel like you've been standing in line at the post office, eavesdropping on a fight. It can be amusing and even voyeuristically pleasing in the moment, but ultimately, you've still got a package to mail and nothing to show for it.

Which leaves one wondering: what did the good minds at 2nd Story see as potential in this play?


In a season of comedies at 2nd Story, perhaps they were seeking something home-grown (Gionfriddo is a graduate of Brown's MFA playwriting program and has taught at local colleges and universities). Most of the play's action takes place in Providence, and in fact, the lines that got the biggest laughs were inside jokes about Federal Hill's restaurants and the academic culture at Brown (including a broad jab at character Becky Shaw's fear of black men, which if she wrote about it, another character advises, could get her admitted to Brown! Har!).

But lines like these are too easy and too self-referential, the kind of crack that a local playwright tosses off over coffee. That is, this play leans on an insular and unearned cynicism about the world, as bounded by Atwells Avenue and the East Side. It tries the patience and presents essentially insurmountable challenges to any director..

The result? Ed Shea pushes his capable cast along, using speed and volume to camouflage the play's flaws. The plot, contrived with alliances and relationships, begins and ends with Suzanna (Rachel Morris), a neurotic underachiever with aspirations in psychology, who has issues with her sharp-tongued, MS-afflicted mother, Susan (Paula Faber). Dad has died, the women are mourning oppositionally (mom's taken up with a gigolo), and adopted son Max (Ara Boghigian), is called home to manage the finances of the family as well as distaff sniping.


There's all kinds of dark stuff that could play early on - crippling, incest (Max and Suzanna hint at sex among their faux-siblingness as she strips down to slip and bra, and more happens...), marriage as "good use" as Max puts it, and more dark commentary on our shallow, superficial times.

But sadly, the only thing more shallow and superficial than our times is this rendering of it. Soon we have Andrew (Tim White), an earnest barista with a Brown degree (har!) who loves the woundedness of Suzanna but somehow manages to endure her dim chatter. They meet on a ski trip and a few months later they marry (who does this in the 21st century, unless in a nursing home?).


The entry of Becky Shaw (Hillary Parker), Gionfriddo's blatant homage to Becky Sharp, the scheming climber in Makepiece's 1848 novel Vanity Fair, only muddies the dramatic waters rather than churn them. This Becky is more oafish than primly calculating, and her charms minimal. When she turns hostile near the play's end in a confrontation with Max, who has dated and dumped her, all you can figure is that she took the wrong meds after breakfast. Which would have, in fact, been a better commentary on our times.

Boghigian makes some hay with Max's acerbic cynicism, as does Faber, who tosses off one-line aphorisms like some kind of existential Phyllis Diller on crutches. But these momentary pleasures get swallowed near-immediately in the play's grinding attempt to be smart, edgy, and hip - so many years after Durang and Marber showed us all how it's done. There's great dramatic precedent for making unlikeable characters worth watching, but Gionfriddo lacks the will, or desire, to do so.

It makes a viewer long for 30 minutes of tight, contemporary, and yes - character-driven - situation comedy.

Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, through Feb 20 at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St, Warren, 247-4200. Tickets $27.

Photos: Top right, Rachel Morris as Suzanna and Ara Boghigian as Max; above left, Hillary Parker as Becky and Tim White as Andrew. Credit: 2ndStory/Richard W. Dionne, Jr.

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