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Becky Shaw

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Annie Parisse and David Wilson Barnes.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Economic problem drama, vibrant comic soap opera, or both? Who knows and who cares? For the majority of Becky Shaw, Gina Gionfriddo's deliciously unclassifiable new play at Second Stage, it hardly matters whether you're immersed in a hard-boiled domestic page-turner or an acid-toned satire of values and finances gone impossibly awry. All that's relevant is the insinuating energy of the title character, the helpless people in her orbit who are being wrenched apart by her gravitational pull, and the delirious plot twists and barbed-wire dialogue that unite them all in an addictive theatrical frenzy.

If this all sounds too good to be accidental, well, it is. Gionfriddo's play, which has been ably and unexcitingly directed by Peter DuBois, is ultimately little more than a contemporary retelling of Langdon Mitchell's late-19th-century play Becky Sharp, which itself drew heavily on William Makepeace Thackeray's classic mid-19th-century novel Vanity Fair. Specific details beyond the time period may differ now and again - Gionfriddo has retained the spirit, but hardly the letter, of the originals' views of social oneupwomanship - but the cunning and cutting Becky (played here with lackadaisical venom by Annie Parisse) is as delightfully evil - or dementedly clueless - and irresistible as ever.

By the time Becky first appears well into Act I, we've already been percussively inculcated into the world she craves. A well-to-do father has passed on, leaving behind his grieving daughter Suzanna (Emily Bergl), his less-than-fraught widow Susan (Kelly Bishop), a semi-adopted son named Max (David Wilson Barnes) who's also Suzanna's too-cherished confidant, and a one-two punch of bankruptcy and scandal that could ruin and humiliate them all. Why would anyone dream of being a part of the sniping, the accusations, and the disintegration these people gobble down like expensive meals?

Becky is just as complicated in her own limited way, her own experiences with wealth and race at least as interesting as theirs - if somewhat more tragic. Harboring no illusions about who she is or what she wants, she owns a humanity that they lack, even if it's not on full view when she's cracking her nails trying to join them at the top. To see that side of her, however, you have to look for it, and only Max - who built himself after Becky's father escorted him into a better life - can recognize it.

Thomas Sadoski and Emily Bergl.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

At least at first. That's when Suzanna's do-gooder writer husband Andrew (Thomas Sadoski) falls for her hard-luck story, much the way he fell for Suzanna's only a few months ago when they met by chance on a skiing trip. This starts to rip apart the seams of Suzanna's own fantasies of marshaling both Andrew and Max, as well as challenging Max's own in-control worldview when mounting circumstances seem to be conspiring to bring him together with Becky - polar opposites like them, he insists, could never, ever attract.

Though certain revelations and their aftermaths can feel self-consciously juicy, they work as part of the broader, darker story of life and the coincidences we both inspire and loathe. Gionfriddo spins her engrossing web of deceit and dysfunction with a surer hand than she did in her New York debut in 2005, After Ashley (produced by the Vineyard Theatre); she's got a clearer purpose now, and a finer-tuned message that never chafes against the potentially tired trope of the thoroughly upper-crust and inordinately confused American family at this show's center.

The brood's teetering dance on the edge of annihilation, which suggests at times a more harshly realistic version of the Gordons from Horton Foote's just-closed Dividing the Estate, tires only when it starts taking itself and its warnings too seriously. The more Gionfriddo forces everyone to become both a victim and a perpetrator in their downfall, and the less she restrains the twists on which the story thrives until its last moments, the harder to swallow the play becomes. By the final scene, the outrages and outlandishness have become really too much.

Still, there's something to admire about a playwright who knows when to call it quits, and Gionfriddo's suave way of creating the quintet's walking-on-ice interactions with each other amid the flames of disaster is as impressive as it is engaging. Suzanna's fling with Max, Susan's debilitating multiple sclerosis, and the pervasive liberalism under which everyone (especially secret soul mates Andrew and Becky) operate all play central roles in showing us how our attitudes and actions create the world that supports or crushes us. Structurally, there's very little waste here.

But the searing lines need more Mametian passion and pacing to land with maximum destructiveness; too often, the battle scenes that erupt feel as though all the explosives are igniting a few seconds too late. Parisse, Bergl, and Barnes are on the front lines, but too one-note to convey the full ranges of their characters' turmoil and fire. Sadoski suavely fills out the vapidly written Andrew with an awkward humor and overstuffed sense of purpose that bring surprising sympathy to a largely cadworthy man. (His uniquely honed for this will also soon be on display on Broadway in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty.)

Bishop, however, completely gets it: Looking like a boozy Gloria Swanson, she's brilliantly bitchy, spitting out quips and rejoinders with a been-there-drank-that efficiency that, alas, can't be imparted. This is comfortably appropriate, however, as Susan knows how the game of class progress is played and wants to educate everyone in its intricacies before it's too late. With Becky Shaw, Gionfriddo proves she's almost as adept - and magnetic - a teacher.

Becky Shaw
Through February 1
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
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