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Can You Forgive Her?

Theatre Review by David Hurst - May 23, 2017

Amber Tamblyn and Frank Wood
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Choosing a title for a show can be fraught with danger, especially when that title poses a question. Unfortunately for Gina Gionfriddo's new play at The Vineyard, Can You Forgive Her?, critics may respond with a resounding 'no' even with a game cast and a solid production. Despite the fact her title is borrowed from Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, a Victorian novel which explores the life choices of three women, Gionfriddo's examination of two contemporary women at financial and emotional crossroads feels like a work still finding its footing.

Directed by Peter DuBois, who also helmed Gionfriddo's Pulitzer finalist works Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn, Can You Forgive Her? had its world premiere last April at the Huntington Theatre Co. in Boston where DuBois is the Artistic Director. It received what can only be charitably described as mixed reviews and it appears not much has changed in its current Vineyard staging. Where Rapture, Blister, Burn was an examination of women's changing roles in society, Can You Forgive Her? focuses its attention on the socio-economic choices two women make for financial security.

The problem isn't Gionfriddo's ear for snappy dialogue, which is on full display in Can You Forgive Her?. It's the outlandish characters she's created combined with the situations she's placed them in which defy credulity. Tanya (an appropriately annoying Ella Dershowitz) is a young, single mother who's worked her way out of a modest debt with the aid of a self-help book aimed at women trying to control their finances. Tanya is a serious acolyte of the book and proselytizes its transformative powers to anyone who will listen, including Graham (Darren Pettie), her older boyfriend who's back in their New Jersey beach town to settle the estate of his late mother. Tanya and Graham are getting engaged despite the fact Tanya has serious misgivings. Even she can see the fact Graham hasn't had a job in six months and has a serious drinking problem are red flags.

Ella Dershowitz and Darren Pettie
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Into their world stumbles Miranda (a blowsy Amber Tamblyn), an unrepentant spendthrift whose massive debt has led her to a life wherein men give her money in exchange for sex. But she's not a prostitute, as she's quick to point out. In between justifying her self-entitlement and fending off Tanya's resentment of her lifestyle, Miranda name-drops various authors courtesy of her expensive, graduate degree in English literature. It seems Miranda and her date for this Halloween evening, an Indian software techie named Sateesh (Eshan Bay), have gotten into an argument at Tanya's bar and Tanya—unbelievably—instructs Graham to take Miranda back to their house to forestall any further trouble. Convinced Sateesh wants to kill her, a painfully long scene of banter ensues between Miranda and Graham in which all sense of pacing and tempo go out the window. She thinks he's gay and he finds himself attracted to her. It's revealed Miranda is really in town to spy on her sugar daddy, David (the superb Frank Wood), who's also in a platonic relationship with a menopausal woman of whom Miranda is jealous. When David finally shows up, much to the delight of the audience, his wildly dysfunctional relationship with Miranda goes on full, psychotic display.

It's in this maelstrom Gionfriddo's writing takes on an absurdist quality that, while amusing in Wood's capable hands, is at odds with the play that's come previously. What starts as realism veers off into black comedy before ending up in Christopher Durang territory. Imagine if Durang had written Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The play's ending, including a stupefying appearance by Sateesh in a Michael Myers mask from the Halloween films, results in an anti-climax in which Gionfriddo makes no comment or judgment on the outcome of her play. Miranda leaves with David to continue her life of financial support, and Tanya and Graham make-up and resolve to move forward with their relationship. What does she want the audience to think? Is it a feminist polemic? Is it a political statement? Or does Gionfriddo think it's enough to just present Tanya and Miranda's separate plights and let us draw our own conclusions? The problem is that, by the time we get to the end of Can You Forgive Her?, we've stopped caring.

Can You Forgive Her?
Through June 11
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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