“Can You Forgive Her?,” a whimsical piece of work by Gina Gionfriddo (“Becky Shaw,” “Rapture, Blister, Burn”), looks like a play, talks like a play, and seems to want to be a play. But for all its honorable ambitions, it turns out to be more of a party than a play. Coming on the heels of a funeral, the festivities are droll but restrained — right up until the moment that Amber Tamblyn shows up. Insistently alive, her outrageously out-there character draws all the light and heat in the room and pretty much turns this party on its head.
A comedy of manners of sorts, the show opens on Halloween night in a rundown summer cottage on the Jersey shore. The house is the only legacy left to Graham (Darren Pettie, ineffably cool) by his late mother — aside from guilt-inducing boxes and boxes of her carefully labeled, unpublished literary output. The cottage is so hopelessly dreary, in a circa-1970s way, that set designer Allen Moyer is unable to give it even a touch of charm.
Graham explains to his girlfriend Tanya (Ella Dershowitz) that, although it’s nobody’s idea of a cute beach house, the cottage was important income for his divorced mother, who could afford no more than the most basic improvements to rent it out. Right away, we’re in Gionfriddo territory, clucking over the unrealized dreams of women without the financial means or emotional support to achieve them.
Tanya, a single mother who works in a bar, has her own modest dreams. She wants to settle down with Graham, if he can only get his act together and commit himself to a decent livelihood. “Drinking and being afraid to go through your mother’s stuff is not a livelihood,” she tells him. Dershowitz tries hard not to whine about Tanya’s grievances, which sound cheerlessly funny in Gionfriddo’s cutting comic voice. But hiding behind the humor is her dead-serious theme about the constraints on women who appear to be in a state of depression, but really only lack the fiscal security and emotional independence to be happy.
If Graham lacks gumption (and Pettie is pricelessly funny about being a worm), Tanya has enough for both of them. She draws up an impressively detailed work outline of exactly how Graham can get the cottage in shape to command a more respectable rental income. She even has plans for a frozen yogurt stand on the beach. The banter between them is clever and yet sober enough to make us think that we’ve got a handle on the playwright’s intentions. But the minute Tanya is off to work and out of sight, Miranda (Tamblyn) shows up and the whole play switches gears.
Even in a demure black cocktail dress, Miranda manages to look a little bit dangerous — just enough to make us question her story of being chased by a homicidal date with a box of knives. Her dialogue is blunt and raw, and Tamblyn makes it burn. “You can’t think deep thoughts when you’re loaded?” she challenges Graham. “I can. I got a PhD drunk.” Her shaggy dog story about her Halloween adventures is a jaw-dropper; in fact, all her stories are jaw-droppers.
Like Tanya, Miranda is dependent on other people for financial survival, but unlike Tanya, she’s taken another road — not a modern woman’s route to independence, but the more traditional survival strategy of latching onto some rich, indulgent sugar daddy. In her cosmic indifference to anyone else in the universe but herself, Miranda somehow manages to get Graham to open up and talk, and the saga of his miserable family history is hilariously sad. Listening to these two swapping life stories is like being strapped into a Tilt-a-Whirl car and getting whip-lashed. Graham tells a sweet story about taking Tanya’s little girl for a walk and watching her blow kisses to the world. Miranda tops that with her own cynical story of teaching middle school kids. “They’re sending hate texts to each other. They’re bullying each other to suicide. Made me want to kill myself.”
Despite Peter DuBois’ savvy helming, none of this brittle conversation leads to a plot, let alone a resolution, but it is what it is — great gallows humor and a good way to celebrate the Witches’ Sabbath.