Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Becky Shaw
Gremlin Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Olivia Wilusz, Chelsie Newhard, Kevin Fanshaw,
and Logan Verdoorn

Photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography
For a stretch into the first scene of Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw, I puzzled over the relationship between Max and Suzanna. These two attractive 30-somethings display a very comfortable physicality with one another, yet don't seem to be romantic partners. Siblings perhaps, until Max speaks to Suzanna referring to your mother, not our mother. They might be cousins, but there is an intimacy between them that hints at more. We find out, in time, that Max grew up in Suzanna's home, at least from the age of ten, when Suzanna's parents took him in as a sort of ward after the death of his mother. So, yes, they are a kind of brother and sister, but not it fact. From this knowledge it takes little imagination to surmise that their feelings for one another are not merely filial.

Becky Shaw first appeared on stage at the Humana Festival in February 2008, where it was met with acclaim, leading to an Off-Broadway production by the end of that year at the Second Stage Theatre. The production was nominated for numerous year-end awards, and the play was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gionfriddo is also known for her 2012 play Rapture, Blister, Burn, also a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Gremlin Theatre has happily brought Becky Shaw to the Twin Cities, marking the first new production of the new decade.

We find Suzanna and Max in Suzanna's hotel room, which Max booked, along with a room for her MS-afflicted mother Susan and himself. Suzanna is still grieving for her father four months after his death, though Susan has moved on nicely, acquiring a younger lover whom Suzanna scornfully calls a "rent boy." They have gathered to discuss the state of their family's finances, which Max, a successful money manager, has carefully reviewed. The bad news: for years the deceased patriarch was squandering the wealth earned from his once thriving business, leaving Susan, her rent boy, and Suzanna, a graduate student who depends on family financial support, in a tight spot.

Eight months pass. Suzanna has married Andrew, whom she met shortly after the events of the first scene, and who is the complete antithesis of Max. Max is blunt, cynical, unapologetically unmoved by the needs of other people, and hooked on short term relationships and pornography. Andrew is kind, gentle, tuned in to other people's feelings, and espouses radical feminist values. Max makes a killing managing wealthy people's money. Andrew claims to be a writer (though there is little evidence of any writing) and recently stepped a rung up the career ladder from coffee shop barista to a university office job. Max dresses like the offspring of Gordon Gecko, Andrew like an unknown indie rocker. It infuriates Max that this is the man Suzanna has chosen as her mate.

When Andrew and Suzanna set up a blind date for Max with Becky Shaw, a temp at Andrew's office describes by Andrew as "delicate," things go off the rails. Max, Suzanna, Andrew and Becky call into question who and what they want, and what drives their wants. An emergency that draws Max and Suzanna back home to help Susan further complicates matters, all the while keeping the audience guessing how things will work out among these mixed up kids. Work out they do, for the moment, though we are left with no certainty about the future—except for Susan, whose worldly-wise perspective will get her through any debacle life can dish up.

The playwright demonstrates a talent for developing characters with sharp traits. She also writes bracing dialogue that wraps quick-witted lines around authentic-sounding conversations. Max says some horridly outrageous things, but in the context of his soulless personality, every phrase is easy to believe, while Suzanna's cutting remarks to Andrew can sound ugly, but they convey her ambivalence about her life choices more than her feelings about Andrew.

As the title character, Becky Shaw begs our attention. Hers is a life formed by reactions to bad luck and bad choices, seeking a salve for bruised emotions. She believes she and Max could be a good match. By what logic, other than the fact that he appeared in her life? While Max is easy to hate, given his egotistical, self-centered nature, Becky Shaw may be the more dangerous. At least we can predict what Max will do, based on his character. Becky is as volatile as the damage from her latest calamity. She is pure reflex, and that throws everyone else off their game.

The five actors in the cast have their work cut out for them, as the comedic aspect of the play (albeit, dark humor) gradually drains away as it becomes increasingly serious, raising tension about how these characters will square things off. Chelsie Newhard, who made a strong impression a few years back in Artistry's Talley's Folly, is captivating as Becky, revealing her "delicacy" to be a cultivated tool for navigating the rapids she repeatedly slips (or jumps?) into. Logan Verdoorn's Max is tightly wound, every line declaimed as though it is a position statement, not allowing a sliver of heart to be seen. He does try once—desperate to keep Suzanna in his life—but can't pull it off. His prideful strength will not release him to express authentic feelings.

Olivia Wilusz is splendid as Suzanna, depicting her mopey mourning, well past its expiration date, then drawing strength through Andrew's kindness to assert frustration and anger at the turns her life has taken. Wilusz is especially impressive as conflict rages, vexed over what to do about Max, about Becky, about Andrew, about her mother, desperately seeking solid ground beneath her feet. Kevin Fanshaw is impressive as Andrew, establishing his mild-mannered nature, then surprising us as he asserts his feelings in no uncertain terms, even if those feelings may be somewhat misguided.

Jodi Kellogg is one of our foremost actors and every time I see her on stage I bemoan the fact that we don't see her more often. As Susan, she fully creates a character who has lived a life of privilege, willing to make the compromises to maintain that status, without sentiment, without regret. She is the force of nature that produced both the impenetrable Max and the untethered Suzanna, and her visage is reflected on both of them.

Director Ellen Fenster melds these five actors into an ensemble that works beautifully together, each actor responding to the different emotional temperatures of the others with utter authenticity. Scene transitions are smoothly accomplished, using flexible furnishings on the set designed by Carl Schoenborn, enhanced with atmospheric projections designed by Emmet Kowler. Mandi Johnson's costumes totally complement each character's persona, from Susan's tailored Upper East Side pink suit in scene one, to the nerdy brown cardigans that are Andrew's alt-consciousness uniform.

There are some holes in the playwright's conception. For one, it seems unlikely that Max and Suzanna would have made it into their mid-thirties before testing the waters of their feelings for one another. Another example: in act two, Susan seems unfettered by the financial constraints presented so dramatically in the first scene. Little gaps like these remind us that Becky Shaw is a play, and keep us from becoming completely absorbed into its world.

Still, Gionfriddo has created a smartly crafted set of characters placed in an engrossing series of peccadilloes as they either seek or avoid love and commitment, while the gimlet voice of an earlier time—Susan—calls the whole business into question. There are hearty laughs and much to think about, with fodder for long after-the-play conversations about what does and does not constitute good and healthy couplings. Becky Shaw is a solid play, very worth seeing. This high-powered production by Gremlin Theatre gives a sparkling start to the new year.

Becky Shaw runs through January 26, 2020, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Adults - $28.00; seniors and Fringe Festival button holders: $25.00; under age 30 - pay half your age. For tickets and information, visit or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.

Playwright: Gina Gionfriddo; Director: Ellen Fenster; Technical Director, Scenic and Light Designer: Carl Schoenborn; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Projection Design: Emmet Kowler; Props Design and Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.

Cast: Kevin Fanshaw (Andrew Porter), Jodi Kellogg (Susan Slater), Chelsie Newhard (Becky Shaw), Logan Verdoorn (Max Garrett), Olivia Wilusz (Suzanna Slater).