The harsh dose of reality … Sometimes it takes the truth of a stranger to show us who really are. For many, it is easier to perpetuate a false truth or a lie, than to live the reality of a shamed or uncomfortable past. When our guard is down and in the company of strangers, is often when our authentic self can be most easily revealed. Change is hard and talk is cheap. And even when you know what changes you need to make, taking the necessary steps to have a lasting effect is difficult to maintain.
Thus, is the case with Becky Shaw.
Get ready for your world to be rocked.
Round House Theatre concludes its 2013 Bethesda season with the area premiere of the bitingly funny Becky Shaw, directed by Patricia McGregor in her Round House Theatre debut.
This Pulitzer Prize finalist by Gina Gionfriddo is a romantic comedy of errors with clearly defined conflicts and ever escalating stakes. (Cute is not involved). Gionfriddo is an Obie Award Winner for her writing and is also a recipient of The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (for U.S. Drag., 2001-2002).
McGregor keeps the moral ambiguity of the play zipping along and has done an admirable job in finding an excellent cast to perfectly embody and define Gionfriddo’s characters. The actors share a relaxed freedom and chemistry in this dark comedy, and it’s best when you witness moments of the actors actually ‘playing’ on stage.
This is a play in my opinion, where knowing less is more.There are several story lines, complicated characters who behave poorly, and there are a lot of back stories in Becky Shaw. But the main plot infused in this collision course is a series of cataclysmic events that change the lives of the five member cast forever. The action is set in motion when for some strange reason, newlyweds Suzanna (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) and Andrew (Rex Daugherty) decide to match Suzanna’s class-conscious brother Max (Will Garthshore) on a blind date with her husband Andrews’s social climbing, co-worker Becky Shaw (Michelle Six). When the blind date takes an unexpected dark turn, this dark comedy turns taut thriller, and unrelenting, sharp realities ensue.
A playwright’s responsibility is not in supplying all of the answers in a play but in raising consequences and good questions. Inspired by William Makepeacce Thackeray’s 1847 classic Vanity Fair, social ambition, class, race, and tangled themes of love and sex, are all addressed in Becky Shaw, and Gionfriddo succeeds with raising many questions without really passing judgment on any of its flawed, richly drawn characters. Depending on your own personal history, the questions you take away might serve as a guide as to what characters you see as “good” or “bad.”
What is slightly off putting – though not quite to the point of annoying – is the way Gionfriddo has constructed some of the dialogue (especially Max’s) consisting of one perfectly stated, sarcastic one liner after another zinging one liner, creating a feel of something akin to what is delivered on a television series. What was surreal is the almost automatic “laugh track” created by the audience as a result. Observing those exchanged awkward moments, took me out of the performance for a second in the beginning. Yet, it is the potency and sparkling insight about the personal intersections of honesty and responsibility, and the ever-changing relationships between family and friends in Becky Shaw that draws one in, and keeps you hanging onto every word.
The actors are masterful in trying to find the good within their characters, because on the surface there is not a lot. It was difficult for me to have tremendous empathy for any of the characters. Although with all that these characters say and experience in the course of the play, one feels that empathy has to have been the playwright’s intent.
If there is one to be respected in the end, for me, it is the scene-stealing, Brigid Cleary (Susan) who plays Suzanna’s mother, who stands in her truth as a character and who has no illusions to whom she is or what she wants. She brings a vitality to the stage and a rush of energy to every scene she is in. This four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee is an actor who personifies the term – stage presence.
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan has delicately formed the character of Suzanna as an impetuous, disaffected princess type who is dogged in her search for love and attention. The well-meaning but emotionally immature, Suzanna may be in grad school studying the psychology of others, but she is still in practice of many child-like behaviors of her own At 35, she is still is finding her place in the world and learning the adjustments of living without a lot of money and within her means.
Max is her adopted brother and the person entrusted with taking financial care of her and her mother Susan (Brigid Cleary) after the death of their father.
The cup of superlatives to describe Max Garrett overfloweth. Cynical, arrogant, emotionally constipated, and a judgmental, unpleasant bully would be a good start. He wields his acerbic, sarcastic tongue like a deadly sword and takes no prisoners as the central role in Becky Shaw. The rude and self-hating Max lives in his own world, and it’s one that he doesn’t particularly like. For as harsh as he is (and that description of him), it is the awesome skill of Will Gartshore that so vividly orchestrates Max’s contemptuous persona to life that he is etched in my memory.
I think the audience responds favorably to him – even if you don’t like him – because the take away is a certain respect for his honesty. He spews the ugly unpleasantries and nasty realities that any of us may think from time to time (especially guys), but never had the audacity (or insensitivity) to articulate. Max may have money, good schooling, and he cleans up well, but the bottom line is material things can never change who you are inside or hide deep-rooted insecurities. Max has serious issues, but nobody is perfect. Gartshore makes it easy to loathe and somewhat admire Max all in the same moment.
Andrew, Suzanna’s emotionally enabling husband of a few months, is the “indie rock poet boy”(as often referred to by Max), a has-been Barista, and a current office manager who used to cater to his one-time depressive wife, but now he’s obsessed to caring for the every whim of Becky Sharp. Rex Daugherty is spot on in capturing all of Andrew’s feminist leaning idiosyncracies and sensitive nuances in this pivotal role.
That brings us to the title character, Becky Sharp.
There is a sadness with Becky Sharp’s frilly, insecure character whose actions show that she is out of her class and is trying to break in. Life has treated her rough around the edges, and it shows. Needy, lonely, and hungry for affection, at 35, the stakes are raised. She’s made a lot of mistakes and might feel that she doesn’t have many options left. The denial and scent of desperation that reeks from Becky Sharp are potent. Michelle Six is exquisite as she fully fleshes out this Becky Sharp character and exaggerates, embellishes, and manipulates as she plays victim. Becky Sharp just might be a con. Or, is she a lost, endearing parasite?
Technically, the production team of costume, lighting, and sound designers serve this production well. This is a character driven play and the production designers flawlessly execute the ease of that focus with their skill. The imagination and polished stage construction of Daniel Conway’s elaborate six set designs that change from scene to scene between two rotating center stage rounds are a notable statement piece of this Becky Sharp interpretation, and are on par with the excellence with the rest of McGregor’s specific and detailed production. Conway’s vision to create effective, liveable spaces along with seamless statement locales and set pieces is the winning combination of simple elegance that he does here so well, as he has in other set designs in his many years in area theatres.
The good, the bad, and the ugly are all here with Becky Shaw. But it is Gionfriddo’s quick wit, on point character performances, and Director Patricia McGregor’s whirlwind pacing, motivated blocking, and smart staging that successfully keeps the audience guessing and intrigued, making this Round House production, a – nothing – like – it piece of outstanding entertainment. What’s most satisfying is the gift of new beginnings that Becky Shaw leaves the audience.
The phrase ‘tough love’ has a whole new meaning, and the best is yet to come.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission.
Becky Shaw plays through June 23, 2013 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or in person at the box office, or purchase them online.