'Becky Shaw' at Wilma Theatre

Television writer Gina Gionfriddo’s play is a witty take on relationships and money.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 12, 2010

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Family affair: Suzanna (Danielle Skraastad, left) sits with her mother Susan (Janis Dardaris) in Becky Shaw.

If you are looking for a smart new play that’s performed, directed and designed magnificently, head to the Wilma Theater’s deliriously funny production of Gina Gionfriddo’s Pulitzer-nominated Becky Shaw .

The best American play since Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County , the action in Shaw spans nine months in the lives of five characters: the recently widowed Susan (Janis Dardaris), her adopted son Max (Jeremy Bobb), her daughter Suzanna (Danielle Skraastad), Suzanna’s husband, Andrew (Armando Riesco), and titular character Becky Shaw (Brooke Bloom).

The characters are defined by upbringing, economic status and, perhaps most tellingly, age. They’re complicated, contradictory, imperfect and entirely realistic.

Susan is the fading matriarch, an experienced but impatient woman. She has no time for those who disagree with her. Susan is used to having money.

The play’s four other characters are all in their 30s. In an age where thirtysomething is the new twentysomething, they’re young adults struggling for romantic and financial stability after a lifetime of familial chaos. They’re mature but inexperienced, especially in the field of relationships, into which they enter with years of emotional baggage.

Max is the most practical of the group. Extravagantly cynical and boasting an acerbic wit, he probes people for their weaknesses but carefully guards against revealing his own. He can be cruel, but he’s also extremely loyal and we can’t help but like him despite his considerable faults.

Suzanna is moody and excitable. A needy soul, she allows others to take charge, yet she’s also demanding and wants to establish her independence. She relies on Max, though she often disagrees with him, and the two have an unusually intimate relationship.

Throughout the play, Gionfriddo is clearly interested in exploring the ability to empathize with others. No character embodies her investigation more than Andrew. An Ivy-League liberal, Andrew is so sensitive he cries watching pornography. He’s drawn to broken people, notably his wife Suzanna, but his empathy for others is self-serving. A discreet narcissist, he rescues needy women to prove his own self-worth.

The enigmatic title character is no less complicated. Becky enters the story when Andrew and Suzanna set her up on a date with Max. They’re a seemingly mismatched pair, and the date (which involves a criminal offense) goes horribly wrong. Shattered by the event, a trembling Becky describes herself as a leaf buffeted by life’s harsh winds. However, her actions suggest that she is tougher than she reveals.

Episodic and fast-moving, the play’s scenes take place inside Mimi Lien’s revolving white-box design. The sets differ dramatically, giving each location in the play a unique personality.

A writer for television (most notably for Law & Order ) as well as the theater, Gionfriddo’s snappy dialogue is reminiscent of His Girl Friday , When Harry Met Sally and Up in the Air . Director Anne Kauffman smartly unearths the rhythms in Gionfriddo’s words and nothing about the production seems forced or manipulative. The characters drive the action and, under Kauffman’s leadership, the actors bring them to life. Bobb and Dardaris are especially captivating. A veteran performer who has long been one of area’s top actors, Dardaris’ stern performance as Susan marks her second Barrymore-worthy portrayal this season. (She was equally impressive in the Arden Theatre Company’s Rabbit Hole. )

Like many great plays, Shaw deals with family and death, but what makes the play so timely is its focus on money as a determination of class and identity. Like many people in America, the characters in Becky Shaw worry about, waste or (in Max’s case) obsess over money. With it or without it, money is an integral part of their identity.

After a holiday season almost entirely lacking in bold, adult plays, the Wilma’s staging is a much-appreciated gift. ■

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