Thoughts & Musings

A Mircoscope in the Kitchen

by Tom Robers

What are you doing the next few days? If tonight you’re at 2nd Story Theatre seeing Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, I can safely predict that this play will be part of your agenda well beyond tonight.

Seeing a play is a lot like that occasion we’ve all encountered while driving when traffic slows down to gape at an accident at the side of the highway. How fascinating it is to watch other people’s misfortunes. While in drama the blood isn’t real and the pain is just feigned, theatre has a real advantage in satisfying that primal need for vicarious gratification. We don’t even have to be embarrassed and we mostly don’t inconvenience anyone behind us (as long as we’re not texting). Watching a play, we can revel in someone else’s pain, even laugh at it. Yes it’s too bad that Polonius dies, but he really had it coming, didn’t he.

Beyond creating a mesmerizing, deeply and disturbingly funny play, Gionfriddo has created a gallery of characters who are at once familiar and repellent. These are people who seem on the surface to be who we might meet in our own social orbit — the financial manager, the psychologist, the apparently wealthy widow. Appearances, we learn from art and from life, can be deceiving. The characters in this play are not nice people and yet, like the mishap on the side of the road, we can’t take our eyes off them.

Becky Shaw is a smaller-cast, less operatic, much funnier slice of the same dramatic cake as was 2008’s Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. A family’s polite veneer is chipped away to reveal the dirty secrets and seething animosities that lie beneath. Gionfriddo doesn’t even bother with the veneer. Becky Shaw gets right to the dark side in the first moments of the opening scene.

There is not an attractive, likable person on view in the whole play. There are times, to be sure, when some of them pass through sympathetic moments. Suzanna seems for a while as if she might merit our approval, that is until we see that her family’s ruthless gene has not skipped over her. Becky’s awkward neediness or Andrew’s straightforward pursuit of fair play in one scene will be viewed from a wholly different perspective in the next. Even the progressively deteriorating disability of the mother, Susan, is never presented as an appeal for compassion.

All of them, however, have to settle for the silver in the outrage Olympics. The gold goes to Max, the relentlessly intemperate and tactless financial manager. Max is a tsunami of invective. He commands our attention, although we are repelled by him. He is less a roadside accident and more Richard the Third. Or Gordon Gekko. Or Sarah Palin. Max amazes us, he appalls us, he makes us laugh, at times to our own surprise and dismay. Why did I laugh at that? I shouldn’t have laughed at that. What a rare gift Gionfriddo possesses to have him make us do that.

In the 1920s, the brilliant actor/director Eric von Stroheim was dubbed “the man you love to hate.” There is something of that in Max. As we cringe at the most exuberant of his heartless putdowns, we secretly can’t wait for the next one. And just as secretly, we store away some of his best vitriol, thinking we might be able to roll it out (most likely under our breaths) at our next uncomfortable social encounter. Of course, we never really would say anything like that. But Max does. Repeatedly. Every scathing shot a bullseye.

None of us wants to be Max, but all of us most likely enjoy the time we spend with him during the play. Would we want to have dinner with him some time? Probably not; he’d be much more enjoyable across the room than across the table. In that, we hold an advantage over Suzanna, who needs more than just across the room. She needs Max’s full attention; she is obsessed with him. And that obsession stokes his furnace.

It may not be since Groucho Marx’s classic one-liners that a character has had such memorably cynical dismissals as Max does in this play. But Groucho was clearly playing with Margaret Dumont and she always sprang back from his insults. Max’s victims are not nearly so resilient. Or not at least at first glance. We are constantly kept off balance in Becky Shaw in our assessment of who is the victim and who the assailant.

Who is manipulating whom? The whole lineup gets a turn at bat. Max is certainly the master manipulator. Suzanna and her mother play an unending tennis match of one-upswomanship. Andrew is a member of the manipulation farm team who’s been brought up to the big leagues, though not for long, still learning how to deal with the designated hitters. In a pool of sharks Andrew is the bait. Becky Shaw, who seems at first Andrew’s flailing partner in the deep end of the pool, exerts the tyranny of the chronically oppressed. Whether or not her power is stronger than that of the seasoned manipulators is the crux of the play — a play, don’t forget, that bears her name. You will have to wait until the final moments of the play to appreciate fully why it’s called Becky Shaw.

Good and bad are not moral certainties in Gionfriddo’s Providence. It is a major factor in the brilliance of this play that the moral ground keeps shifting. Our sense of what is right and what is wrong, decent and base, noble and manipulative changes every few minutes in Becky Shaw. That we in the audience are able to make those seismic moral shifts so many times during the course of a ninety-some minute play is a tribute to our security and our sophistication. But we are making those moral flip-flops in a darkened room, huddled anonymously amid a group of people with whom we will in all likelihood never have to make the same conscience calls outside the theatre.

Becky Shaw is a play that makes you think, makes you wonder, makes you marvel at the power that words still possess. Whether you love it or not or it simply baffles you, it is more than likely that you will be talking about this play in the car all the way home. And tomorrow too. Maybe even next week. The price of your ticket gave you more than just an evening out and that is an investment even Max might applaud.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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