Widgets Magazine

‘Becky Shaw’ brings life to SF playhouse

Courtesy Actors Equity

Gina Gionfriddo’s recent work displayed at the SF Playhouse, Pulitzer Prize finalist “Becky Shaw,” is the best piece of theatre in San Francisco at the moment, and indeed, in the last few months. Gionfriddo’s script is trenchant and clever, with enough laugh-out-loud epigrams to fill an Oscar Wilde play. But the play has more in common with early Woody Allen movies like “Annie Hall” that mix pathos with comedy than with “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

 

The death of Suzanna’s father has left the family penniless – not broke, but without savings. Her mother, Susan (Lorri Holt), who has multiple sclerosis, has taken a younger lover, her house painter, which disgusts Suzanna (Liz Sklar). Her cynical, adopted brother Max (Brian Robert Burns), on the other hand, sees this as a reasonable business deal; she simply can’t afford to hire help to deal with her illness. It has also left Suzanna severely depressed, unable to get off the couch and glued to trashy television stories about prostitutes. As Max puts it, “She has too much free time” to be depressed; Suzanna replies, “I’m a graduate student!”

 

Becky Shaw is the MacGuffin of the play, which is really a study of relationships and their forms – platonic, romantic and familial – that can sometimes bleed together. Becky (Lauren English), a temp at Andrew’s (Lee Dolson) office, is the seemingly unfortunate recipient of a blind date with Max, a cold-blooded New York finance guy. Max is judgmental, and when Becky shows up by taxi without a cell phone, he asks if she’s Amish or just one of those crazy environmental freaks. Unsurprisingly, their date goes badly: they get mugged, have bad sex and he kicks her out prematurely.

Courtesy Actors Equity

 

What transpires is the unraveling of every relationship in the play. Suzanna’s husband, Andrew, who saved her from depression after her father’s death, feels responsible for Becky’s post-date trauma and is drawn to nurse yet another sick puppy to health. Is he legitimately and harmlessly kind? Or is this kind of damage something he gets off on? As Max notes to Suzanna, Andrew married the last helpless woman he met. Meanwhile, Suzanna and Max’s semi-incestuous tryst and her dependency on him – which her mother claims he cultivated starting at a young age – start to interfere with her marriage. Do they have a relationship? Is it altogether okay that Susan uses her boyfriend with the understanding that he’s using her, too?

 

The play is rife with moral ambiguity and asks many questions without really passing judgment on any of its flawed, richly drawn characters. The SF Playhouse proves a wonderful space for this intimate family comedy of “middle-class manners,” as it has been called. Wherever you’re sitting, you get a clear view of all of the actors’ faces and movements. The stage is small, too, which adds a level of claustrophobia to their interactions: the discomfiture within the family is exacerbated by the lack of space to flee from one another. There is a lot of talent onstage: great comedic timing, motivated blocking with seamless movement on the stage and the ability of all the actors to play the gamut of emotions, from fear to joy to dismissive insecurity. But too often did the actors stumble over their lines, jumbling them up; the play needs to run for a couple more weeks to become fully polished. Soon, it will be not just a wonderful piece of theatre, but a masterful one.

About Alexandra Heeney

Alexandra Heeney writes film, theater and jazz reviews. She has covered the Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and her favorite, the Toronto International Film Festival. As a Toronto native, the lack of Oxford commas and Canadian spelling in this bio continue to keep her up at night. In her spare time, Alex does research on reducing the environmental impact of food waste for her PhD in Management Science and Engineering.