Thoughts & Musings

“Ah, Vanitas Vanitatum:”
Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw (2008)

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

…it became naturally Rebecca’s duty to make herself, as she said, agreeable to her benefactors, and to gain their confidence to the utmost of her power. Who can but admire this quality of gratitude in an unprotected orphan; and, if there entered some degree of selfishness into her calculations, who can say but that her prudence was perfectly justifiable?
Thackeray in Vanity Fair, chapter 10

Waiting for his blind date to arrive, the cynical money manager Max tells his pseudo-sister Suzanna, “Prostitution, marriage…Same thing. It’s two people coming together because each has something the other wants.” In his view, “Love is a happy by-product of use.” A different perspective will be offered by Susie’s tough, domineering mother towards the end of the play, “The heart wants,” she explains, “what the heart wants.” Between these two poles-an arrangement to meet needs or an emotional longing-the characters in this blistering social satire bounce back and forth.

Suzanna, Max, and mother Susan form a dysfunctional family responding to the death of Suzanna’s father. Susan’s way of dealing and denying is to pick up an obvious hustler as a younger lover and lose herself in the relationship. Imperious mother Susan, who has some of the best lines of the play, lives by denial. If she doesn’t want to know an unpleasant fact, she ignores it and calls it a “mystery.” Daughter Suzanna and adopted son Max have a quasi-incestuous attraction (since Max was raised in the family but isn’t a blood-relative). Suzanna, with her love of horror and pornography, leans towards the grossly dramatic, wallowing in her grief over her father’s death, threatening “harm” to herself. Both women are dependent on Max to take care of them, emotionally and financially, even as they strike him with the whips of their stinging one-liner put-downs.

Max, cynical and abrasive, is actually the most reliable person in the entire set-up. Ever the outsider, he guards himself from hurt with his razor-sharp quips and callous behavior. Yet it’s clear that he has always loved both Susan and Suzanna and, rain or shine, he’s there for them.

Into this balanced, if snarly, three-way relationship, three new people are invited-thereby upsetting the balance and whirling the three originals into new directions. Susan falls for Lester (who is always off-stage), a conman who ends up in jail. Suzanna longs for Max (in an off-hand way), but has a quickie courtship and marries Andrew, the kind of man who collects lost souls so that, in saving them, he has a purpose in life. Max, whose great love is money, goes through a series of three-month girlfriends. And then Suzanna and Andrew set Max up for a blind date with a girl temping in Andrew’s office, a black hole of neediness, Becky Shaw.

Becky is poor. She’s thirty-five and still adrift. She’s without professional direction. She’s the survivor of a couple of disastrous relationships. She’s been renounced by her family. She doesn’t even have a cell phone or know how to dress for a date. Why would anyone hook up the predatory Max with this waif? How could anyone suspect that Max could be the victim?

Before she’s through, Becky Shaw will have unsettled the original triangle, unglued Suzanna from Max, threatened Andrew’s and Suzanna’s marriage, lured a queasy Max into a spider’s web, and glommed onto Susan. She is the consummate user.

The name of this title character, Becky Shaw, is supposed to recall her vixenish, calculating, climbing predecessor, Becky Sharp, anti-heroine of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, published as a twenty-part serial in Punch in 1847 – 48, is a huge lumbering satiric novel on early 19th century English society and the social climbing and crass ambition of the flawed characters in search of status and financial gain. It’s dead on. Despite not having a proper hero, Thackeray gave us the superbly realized anti-heroine, Becky Sharp, so cunning, manipulative, and amoral, that we come to have a sneaking admiration for her and her sexy, calculating, home-wrecking energy.

Becky Sharp/Becky Shaw. The playwright has built in a kind of deliberate referencing, a reflection of the sort of Vanity Fair satire that laces through Becky Shaw. There’s no moral center, no one remotely heroic, and everyone dances the satiric dance of use and be used. We are supposed to think of Becky Sharp as a ghostly presence behind Becky Shaw-they are both pretty, manipulative, and expert at attaching themselves to men who can advance their fortunes, whether married, committed, or otherwise inappropriate. There are serious differences, of course. Where Thackeray’s Becky Sharp would have deliberately bared her pretty little teeth and aggressively gone for the jugular, Gionfriddo’s slyly gold-digging Becky Shaw is much more passive-aggressive. Perhaps in keeping with our more contemporary mores, she whines, feigns helplessness, layers on the guilt, and flirts with nervous breakdown and pseudo-suicide attempts.

The 41-year old Gina Gionfriddo is such a contemporary playwright that it’s actually difficult to find information about her. She is, if not a home-grown talent, certainly a Rhode Island claim-to-famer. A graduate of the M.F.A. Playwriting Program at Brown, Gionfriddo has taught writing at Brown, Providence College, and Rhode Island College. She’s a successful television scriptwriter for Law and Order and Law and Order CSI and that rat-a-tat, scene by scene formula is, I think, reflected in her stage scripts. Her first play was Guinevere in 2001. She quickly followed with After Ashley in 2002, then by America’s Got Tragedy, Becky Shaw, and a handful of others. She is one very hot playwright, receiving a basketful of awards-an Obie, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, The Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, and an American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg Citation.

As Becky Shaw demonstrates, Gionfriddo’s métier is acerbic commentary on our modern, money-obsessed society, with a harsh spotlight turned on how moral commitments dissolve to become transactional relationships. It’s a scathing eat-or-be-eaten world and who gets to be dinner often comes as a surprise.

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

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