Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw” is a blithely cynical and devastatingly funny play about … well, it’s hard to say what the point of it is, exactly. But scribe’s witty observations on the emotional damage inflicted by neurotic people in the name of love is such a painful pleasure that probing for deeper meaning seems stuffy, as well as pointless. Besides, any charge of superficiality hardly counts as criticism, when character surfaces are so artfully defined by the savvy cast of Peter DuBois’ slick production for Second Stage.
Gionfriddo is on record as saying her comedy of romantic errors is about social ambition and class snobbery. Moreover, she invites comparisons between her title character, an emotional succubus with the needy thirst of a vampire, and William Makepeace Thackeray’s conniving 19th century social climber, Becky Sharp.
Don’t bet on it. As deliciously as she is played by Annie Parisse, Gionfriddo’s Becky is no desperate outcast of England’s rigid 19th-century class system, but a red, white and blue American hustler with great skills at manipulating people too neurotic to see through her shams.
In the free-form structure of the play, Becky doesn’t even come onstage until the non-eventful “action” is a third of its way along. Until that moment, all eyes are on Emily Bergl’s endearingly strung-out Suzanna, newly impoverished by the death of her beloved, but improvident father. (Impoverishment in modern-day America being relative, the neurasthenic Suzanna still has the wherewithal to dress her skinny self in cool casual outfits.)
Suzanna’s best friend and confidant is Max, the living embodiment of overcivilized manhood in David Wilson Barnes’ riveting perf: too smart, too clever, too controlled and too, too sad for words.
Well aware of his diminished emotional capacities (the most obvious being his inability to declare his love for Suzanna), Max overcompensates by cultivating a quick wit and a tongue so sharp he is forever cutting himself, along with anyone else in range.
Whenever these two brainy, but terminally bruised soulmates are together in the same room, their corrosive dialogue (at which Gionfriddo is some kind of genius) makes every dim bulb light up. No matter that the insights and insults Suzanna and Max hurl at one another are not always thematically significant, or even apropos to what happens to be going on. The sharpness of their wit and the intensity of the delivery send little shockwaves of delight through the house.
What could be funnier than hearing Barnes’ imperious Max snapping at Bergl’s self-pitying Suzanna to stop watching “the autopsy channel” and “man up” for a visit from her mother? Maybe watching mother Susan (so empowered by Kelly Bishop she could snap your spine with one basilisk look) put these two in their place — under her thumb.
Although Max and Suzanna consider themselves siblings (Max having been taken in by Suzanna’s father), these loving combatants would seem to be ideally suited mates. So, when Suzanna appears as the wife of a professionally sensitive nerd named Andrew (played with admirable restraint and not a sign of a smirk by Thomas Sadoski), one can only assume that a terrible mistake has been made.
But that seems to be scribe’s point — that people as insecure as Suzanna and Max are pre-determined to screw up their lives by mating with the wrong people. Which is where Becky, who knows Andrew from work, comes in.
It’s obvious at a glance that Becky doesn’t quite grasp the social context of her badly engineered date with Max, overdressed as she is (and very subtly so, by costumer Jeff Mahshie’s clever hand) in a pretty, but overly formal pink frock. But while eyebrows are raised, nobody freaks out at Becky’s faux pas (as they do in Thackeray’s novel), and everyone seems willing to take her as she is. The kicker is, none of these smart people can see Becky for the needy neurotic she is, and each in turn (including that old fox Susan) is taken in by her manipulative ways.
As Gionfriddo handles it, that’s funny, too, but not believable enough to hang a plot on.