Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Becky Shaw"

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note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi


by Gina Gionfriddo
directed by Peter DuBois

Suzanna Slater … Keira Naughton
Max Garrett … Seth Fisher
Susan Slater … Maureen Anderman
Andrew Porter … Eli James
Becky Shaw … Wendy Hoopes

During intermission at Gina Gionfriddo’s “ferociously funny” BECKY SHAW (Huntington Theatre), the motherly usherette who had seated me approached with “Do you like it?” Caught, I fell back on “interesting”, but her question gave me food for thought --- along with theatre-emails beginning with “I’m so glad you liked…” or “I’m sorry you didn’t like…” ---- are theatre-critics supposed to personally like or dislike whatever they review, or are they are meant to be as objective as possible, to praise what they feel works and to analyze what, in their opinion, does not? Of course theatre-criticism is a personal expression just as different actors will each bring his own uniqueness to a certain role (itself, a personal expression of its creator); the theatre-critic, however, must not let too much of himself get in the way of his reportage, for his task is three-fold: (1) to approach everything he sees with as open a mind as possible, keeping his prejudices in check, (2) to provide constructive feedback to the artists in question according to his own standards (ideally, balanced and informed ones) and to alert audiences as to what they will actually be seeing; should his readers trust his opinion and attend a recommended failure that breaks new ground rather than sit through a ho-hum success, then the critic has succeeded in making his readers think and choose for themselves which, in turn, may encourage them to take further risks as playgoers. Some of my most satisfying evenings in the theatre have been low-expectation ones: I am not a Sondheim admirer yet I thrilled to North Shore’s PACIFIC OVERTURES and New Rep’s SWEENEY TODD and INTO THE WOODS; I have a low tolerance for “cutting-edge” plays but have been pleasantly challenged by Zeitgeist Stage’s high-quality ensembles. I am weary of dysfunctional-family comedies and BECKY SHAW is one of them, boasting a widowed mother (Susan) and daughter (Suzanna) barely on speaking terms (Suzanna cannot stomach her mother’s sleazy boyfriend), their adopted son/brother (Max) who controls the family finances and Suzanna’s emotions, Suzanna’s bleeding-heart spouse (Andrew) and the title character: a passive-aggressive blind date from hell (Providence, actually) who soon has Suzanna, Max and Andrew jumping through numerous hoops, all done up in that kvetchy therapy-speak that is catnip to hip, urban audiences but may seem foreign to those out, say, in the heartland (which, in turn, has its own dysfunctional style). Yet I was held, even fascinated, throughout by BECKY SHAW which may well have the most lacerating clashes since Mr. Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? four decades, ago; I cannot think of any other play to compare to this one, so akin to watching a highway accident, over and over, but from different angles --- and, yes, this is a comedy! Most mesmerizing of all is the weird, potent music that Ms. Gionfriddo draws from two mismatched couples (A-C and B-D) and how the true, flowing sounds come whenever A pairs off with B, and C with D --- in fact, the ending disappointed me, not only because a third act is clearly called for (Ms. Gionfriddo works in television and the final tableau cries out “TO BE CONTINUED…”) but because having created a dance of death (A-B) and a dance of life (C-D), she shifts to a minor key for a “realistic” happy ending just as Lydia R. Diamond has done with STICK FLY, the other Huntington production now drawing to a close.

Peter DuBois has directed a hard, punchy Broadway-type production where the dialogue is either banter (foreplay) or punchline (orgasm) and his actors have the correct vocal and body rhythms that scream “NEW YORK”; Seth Fisher, handsome in an offbeat sort of way, dazzles as Max --- a cold Regency rake for our times --- and Wendy Hoopes’ Becky is so much emotional quicksand that you may gasp each time she reappears; this creature will simply NOT go away! Ms. Gionfriddo gives away her television background with her numerous set changes and Derek McLane has complied with tasteful set-pieces that glide into place, lickidy-split, but makes me wonder how community theatres would meet such challenges when they rely on stagehands, not turntables…

Finally, a critic must put his own views in perspective --- his should not be the final word on a production, especially when the audience-majority is in one frame of mind and he, in another; thus I will acknowledge my fellow viewers’ opinions when worth mentioning, and I attended a matinee of BECKY SHAW that was packed with white senior citizens and black teenagers. The teenagers snickered and made “ooo-EEE” sounds whenever two characters kissed, onstage, while their elders dutifully tried to understand this most nagging and verbally obsessive of generations --- they are from an age where you didn’t discuss every little thing in a marriage and were in nodding agreement with Susan’s tough-love advice on how to make her daughter’s troubled marriage work. There was even a whiff of drama in the house, itself, when Becky made some unintentionally racist-sounding remarks: the teenagers began murmuring while their elders (myself, included) stiffened --- it made for a tense moment, all right, and threw light, again, on STICK FLY where Ms. Diamond goes out of her way to soothe her audiences of both colors, not provoke them. Personally, I find Ms. Gionfriddo’s approach more honest: since her characters are totally unfettered (“fuck” is a heavy dialogue-seasoning, here), the passing racist-talk is just another thread in this compelling, unraveling fabric.

For the record, I “liked” BECKY SHAW.

"Becky Shaw" (5 March-4 April)
Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

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