I had the pleasure of reading Gina Gionfriddo's BECKY SHAW and seeing its New York production while I was on the Pulitzer Prize drama jury. The jury had no difficulty making BECKY SHAW one of its three finalists for the prize that year (2009). It has reached London in a production by the director of the New York production (Peter DuBois) and one of the original cast members and received raves from most of the critics. A second viewing only confirms my enthusiasm for the play.
In the simplest terms, BECKY SHAW is a quintessentially American play is focusing on a dysfunctional family. What it does brilliantly is confront serious issues through comedy. We begin with an odd family configuration in a typical domestic drama crisis. Suzanna's father has died and the family discovers not only that he squandered a great deal in poor business decisions, but that he and his business partner were lovers. Four months after his death, his mother, suffering from multiple sclerosis, has taken a lover-caregiver who is, to put it mildly, a bit shady. The only daughter, Suzanna, is a thirty-one year old graduate student in psychology who has many issues of her own. The family fortune, such as it is, and domestic crises are handled by Max, who has lived with them since his mother died when he was ten. Max and Suzanna are, to put it mildly, very close. At the end of the first scene, it becomes sexual, at least for one night. Suzanna's response is to marry the first man she meets, a sweet, overly sentimental (pornography makes him cry) barista and would-be writer, Andrew. While they live in grad student poverty, Max gets rich as an investment counselor.
Max is really the central character in the play. Professionally successful, Max in his private life has no ability to dissemble. He says exactly what he thinks, no matter how hurtful. No relationship with a woman has lasted more than three months. A principal reason for this is his love of Suzanna.
Enter Becky Shaw as a blind date Suzanna and Andrew have arranged for Max. If Max is the central character, Becky is the catalyst for all the action in the second half of the play. Becky is needy, manipulative and tenacious. When Max dumps her after one disastrous date, Becky looks to Andrew for solace and sappy Andrew gets totally sucked into her black hole of need. Becky still believes she can get Max, who can't stand her, through her manipulation of Andrew. After her patently bogus suicide attempt, Max screams, "The nest time you attempt suicide, try harder." However, it isn't clear that he can avoid her. Becky becomes the litmus test by which the characters defend their sense of morality. Ardent feminist Andrew sees Becky as a victim who must be cared for. Suzanna wants her husband back, though she is really in love with Max. She has her own neediness and can only live with a strong man to protect her. She was devastated by the death of her father and needs Max's strength. Max is deeply loyal to the people he loves -- Suzanna and her mother -- but could care less about anyone else. Morality begins and ends at home for him. The only thing that all the characters share is a need for a loving relationship, however unstable. Max and Suzanna's mother claim not to believe in love, yet Max is devoted to Suzanna and her mother quickly found another man. The loving relationship they seek may or may not be sexual and sex is not necessarily a sign of love. Becky asks Max, "If you didn't want a relationship, why did you fuck me?" Ethically the question makes sense, but unfortunately that's not the way men always think. Is Becky's use of sex to hook a man for life any less ethical than Max's separation of sex and love.
This very funny play raises all sorts of issues about our responsibility beyond the people nearest to us. Is Max wrong for not caring about Iraq? Is Andrew ridiculous in feeling that Becky has become his reponsibility? In general Gionfriddo's sympathy seems to be with the most rational characters -- Max and Suzanna's mother.
One of the things I like best about the play is its non-ending. We're left without a resolution -- with a sense that the process will still be going on. Becky will not disappear. Max will still love Suzanna whose marriage to Andrew is far from satisfactory. The ends aren't neatly tied up at the final curtain.
As in New York, David Wilson Barnes's Max is the center of the play. He is the most complex, interesting character and Barnes totally inhabits him. His body language is as masterful as his comic timing. He's funny but also touching. The always terrific Hayden Gwynne plays the pragmatic mother brilliantly, a rock in a sea of neurosis. The other actors are appropriately irritating. Anna Madeley makes one see that Suzanna may be physically thirty-one but, like many graduate students, is still seventeen. Vincent Montuel is a bit too handsome and too young for the wimpy Andrew. Of course Suzanna would be drawn to this stunning guy who makes his first appearance shirtless, but in the context of the play Suzanna falls for Andrew because of his personality, not his looks. He is the opposite of Max. At first I was surprised at the casting of Daisy Haggard as Becky. She seemed ditzy in her first scene, but the New York Becky radiated neediness from her first appearance. However, as the play progressed, I totally bought that there was a neurotic strength that kept her going. She is totally focused on nabbing Max.
The pacing and character relationships were perfect, the sets (on a revolving stage) appropriate. The cheering audience brought the cast back on repeatedly at the end. This comedy of manners is deceptive. Under the laughs are really serious questions. I think the British love it because they are always drawn to characters like Max who breach all manners (an American Basil Fawlty). However, I think the play speaks more to the American sense of family responsibility and our belief that one is judged first and foremost by how one treats the people closest to them, not one's position on geopolitical issues.
It was great to see BECKY SHAW in an audience that had as many young people as old. When I saw it on a Saturday night at Second Stage in New York, the audience was totally geriatric -- the typical audience at a non-profit theatre in the Big Apple. Now I too am geriatric, but the future of theatre depends on a younger audience. It also make the energy of the theatrical experience more intense. Let's hope that the smaller non-profit theatres in London ca keep their prices low so young people still can affort to attend. The National Theatre is now as pricey as the West End, so one gets an older, well-heeled audience. The National Theatre should be the most affordable theatre in London.
BECKY SHAW by Gina Gionfriddo. Almeida Theatre. January 25, 2011.