Gionfriddo was last represented here by After Ashley, a cynical and bitter work presented at Philadelphia Theatre Company four seasons ago. That play had a lot of funny lines but far too much pontificating; it was so eager to be an important play that it left a sour taste behind. This time around, instead of telling us how the world should be, Gionfriddo shows us. She dramatizes her conflict more effectively, and gives us some colorful and diverse characters who charm despiteor perhaps because oftheir flaws. The result is a comedy that hits both the funny bone and the heart.
Suzanna is trying to settle her disreputable father's estate, but she's not getting much cooperation from her imperious, indignant mother Susan. Her only supporter is her money manager and closest confidant Max, who was taken in by Susan and Suzanna's family as a child when he was virtually abandoned by his family. But there's more to Suzanna and Max's relationship than meets the eye. That becomes more evident a few months later, when Suzanna and her too-sensitive new husband Andrew set Max up on a blind date with one of Andrew's co-workers, Becky Shaw. The sarcastic and skeptical Max smells trouble right away when he finds out Becky doesn't have a cell phone ("Is my date Amish? ... Fifty bucks says she thinks 401k is a band"). The seemingly timid Becky is warned that she might have her hands full ("Don't show him any weakness"). Sure enough, the date goes badlybut the repercussions from that night affect all the characters in unusual ways. They end up reevaluating their attitudesand that involves facing up to the damage they've caused, even when their intentions were good. As Susan observes, "Goodness and incompetence often go hand in hand."
There are a few moments when the situations seem contrived (who in their right mind would set these two up on a blind date?). And while I constantly found my sympathies shifting between the characters, the one I was never able to side with was the underwritten Becky herself. She's meant to be mysterious and elusive, but neither director Kauffman nor the appealing actress Brooke Bloom are able to fill in the blanks.
But those are forgivable lapses in a play full of vivid, multifaceted characters and hilarious dialogue. I haven't laughed so hard at a play in a while. As Max, Jeremy Bobb is the standout: he gets the most caustic lines (tackling everything from porn to "A Nightmare on Elm Street"), and he makes the most out of them by delivering them with a furrowed brow and a contemptuous sneer. He also shows a flair for physical comedy: watch his body language when he sits too far forward on a plush couch and has to adjust himself. Danielle Skraastad shines as the impulsive Suzanna, making her journey from dependency believable, while Armando Riesco is believable as her husband, who overdoes his efforts to be a protector. And, as the patrician mother who tries to make sure that nobody else has any fun, Janis Dardaris is having a lot of fun herself.
Mimi Lien's set design adds a lot to that fun. Constructed on a huge turntable pushed by two stagehands, Lien gives us everything from Susan's luxurious mansion to Becky's hovel of an apartment. Each room is convincing, and each set is surprising.
And that's true of Becky Shaw as a whole: completely convincing, and constantly surprising. Gionfriddo's characters have a lot to say, and Kauffman's production gets the point across superbly.
Becky Shaw runs through February 7 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. Ticket prices range from $36 to $65 (with $10 student tickets available) and may be purchased by calling the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824, online at www.wilmathearter.org or in person at the box office.