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A CurtainUp Review
Becky Shaw

Addendum: A look at Becky Shaw's literary roots by Elyse Sommer
If you need money to leave your husband, ask Max for a loan— Susan
I'm not leaving my husband! — Suzanna
No one respects a woman who forgives infidelity. It kept Hillary Clinton from becoming president — Susan

Becky Shaw
Annie Parisse in Becky Shaw
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Any resemblance between the title character of Gina Gionfriddo's play and Becky Sharp, the heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair is purely and presumably intentional. But whether or not there is a glimmer of similarity between the two women is somewhat incidental. But this doesn't make Gionfriddo's play any less contentious in regards to her presumed heroine who, like her 19th century counterpart, is as determined to satisfy her emotional needs as she is motivated to tactically and aggressively use all her wiles and resources to upgrade her social standing.

A resounding success at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays, Becky Shaw is an amusing and craftily constructed comedy about ambition, the cost of being truthful, and the perils of a blind date. While the director Peter Dubois has kept just two of the original five actors, the current ensemble appears impeccably prepared for their roles. Yet what are we to make of a play in which there is not a single character for whom we can root or a contrived plot that is hardly worth a second thought? I'm not sure I know the answer. After two hours in the company of Gionfriddo's five distinctively perverse and disingenuously dysfunctional characters, I was not sure what lesson I was to learn, what insight I might gain or what resolution I was to ponder. All that and I have to admit to having a good time, laughing a lot and when it was over still thinking about what I surely had missed.

Gionfriddo, who made a splash at the Humana Festival with her first play After Ashley in 2004 (see link below) and subsequently with a production at the Vineyard Theatre, also writes for the TV series Law and Order. She will undoubtedly get even more attention with this play in which a seemingly unassuming, impoverished, unmarried but attractive 35 year-old woman succeeds in unsettling the quirky status quo of a family of means.

While Becky, as played with a disarming, carefully calibrated sincerity by Annie Parisse, is the catalyst for change and the one character most easily defined by her schematic behavior, it is left for the other four characters to deftly defy our expectations and subvert our understanding of human nature. One of the most fascinating aspects of the play is the way each character, in turn, becomes the engine for the next surprise.

While in a protracted state of mourning for her father, 35 year-old Suzanna (Emily Bergl) is also feuding with her mother Susan (Kelly Bishop) over the family's finances and the hastiness with which Susan, despite coping with multiple sclerosis, has found love with a young con artist who by the second act is headed for prison. For most of her life, Suzanna, who is working towards a degree as a therapist, has put her trust in Max (David Wilson Barnes), the family's financial planner who is committed to being more than a mediator between the two women. After his mother died, Max was abandoned by his father and raised by this family since he was 10 years-old. Now a successful, glib and cynical business executive, Max considers the present to be a turning point with regard to his life-long attraction to the high-strung, emotionally needy Suzanna.

Taking Max's advice to help heal the loss of her father, Suzanna goes on a ski holiday and meets Andrew (Thomas Sadoski). Eight months later, Suzanna remains emotionally bonded to Max but is now married to Andrew, a nice looking, un-complicated, law office manager of no particular distinction except that he wants to help every needy person he meets. A good deed doer, Andrew arranges a blind date for Max with Becky, a pretty 30-something-ish co-worker. The scene in which Becky arrives at Andrew and Suzanna's apartment dressed, as Max says, like a " birthday cake," that the play begins to put these seriously flawed individuals into concerted perspective.

It would seem that Becky is in over her head, but she holds her own among the inquisitors spouting Gionfriddo's funniest rejoinders. Gionfriddo has us laughing equally hard at Max's brutal badgering, Susan's eccentricities, Andrew's naiveté and Suzanna's kvetching. The blind date doesn't go well for reasons that I won't give away, but through the dynamics of David Wilson Barnes' brilliantly abrasive performance, Max might easily be labeled a charm-less cad. His reprehensible behavior in regards to romantic love is only subordinate to his callous insensitivity toward everyone's feelings.

Suzanna's inexplicable dependence on Max is another issue that is factored into the mix, particularly in the light of Andrew's somewhat over-the-top concern for Becky. Suzanna is the play's most perplexing character but Bergl finds her most genuine side as Suzanna begins to grasp the fact that her marriage is at risk. And considering all that is at risk, there is something to be said for acknowledging Suzanna as the real heroine and Becky merely the titular intruder. Gionfriddo doesn't make this clear. Sadoski is appealing as the good-natured Andrew who unwittingly initiates opportunity for another romantic disaster.

The scene-dominating Bishop doesn't get enough stage time. She is terrific as the idiosyncratic, autocratic Susan who knows how to maintain control of her life and those around her: "I'm going to buy you both a wonderful dinner and some really excellent wine. We'll have a nice evening and put all of this behind us. But first we have to go to prison." Derek McLane's scenic designs provide a smooth transition from one location to the next, prison excluded.

To Read Curtainup's review of Gina Gionfriddo's After Ashley go here

My kind reader will please to remember that these histories have 'Vanity Fair' for a title and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falseness and pretentions.
— Wlliam Makepeace Thackeray, introducing his initially serialized tale of a society whose was driven by greed for money and social betterment, a tale told with biting humor and cynicism.

Interviews preceding the opening of Becky Shaw at Second Stage confirm Simon Saltzman's above assumption that the resemblance between the title character of Gina Gionfriddo's play and the anti-heroine of Thackeray's epic novel Vanity Fair is indeed purely and presumably intentional. Thackeray's sprawling work with its huge cast of characters is notoriously hard to adapt, but that hasn't prevented fans of the novel from trying.

Four silent film versions were produced between 1911 and 1923. Myrna Loy starred in the first sound film in 1932. Miriam Hopkins tackled the role three years later (in the first ever Technicolor film). The most recent film Becky Sharp was Reese Witherspoon. Of the TV miniseries the one closest to the book was the 1987 version starring Eve Matheson which is available for instant viewing at Netflix.

Unlike the page to stage adapters, novelist Margaret Mitchell created her own version of a novel dominated by a scrappy Becky Sharp-ish woman who, despite her girlish fiddle-de-dees, was not one to be kept from living life to the fullest, no matter what her economic and social circumstances. And as Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara parallelled Becky Sharp, so the virtuous Melanie Wilkes echoed Becky's friend, Amelia Sedley. Instead of using the Napoleonic war as background, Mitchell's story was drawn on a Civil War canvas.

While literary historians have identified Vanity Fair as the obvious inspiration for Gone With the Wind, the point-counter-point relationships between two quite different women has been a popular plot device. Female characters unwilling to live life according to their social circumstances and willing to do anything to realize their ambition have often been likened to Becky Sharp (think Hedda Gabler and Eve Harrington).

This brings us to Ms. Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw. For Vanity Fair fans that name instantly evokes Thackeray's Becky, in my case, so much so that I accidentally wrote Becky Sharp in my calendar. Since Thackeray penned his novel not just to entertain but to reveal the foibles of the English upper classes and perhaps leave readers to contemplate on their own place in this greed and deceit filled society, Gionfriddo's choice for her Becky's surname not only makes for a natural link to Sharp but also conujures up the name of George Bernard Shaw, another socially conscious playwright —giving the title something of a sly double literary edge.

Ms. Gionfriddo's characters display distinctly NOW style foibles. Put them in period costumes and wigs, and they're not all that different from the puppets in the Vanity Fair performance used to frame the novel. That said, the implied connection to its literary ancestor is basically an attention-getting conceit. However, it's fun to consider the connections to the novel as well as the differences.

Becky Shaw does turn out to be as manipulative and bent on satisfying her own needs as Becky Sharp. However, Becky's surname is aptly symbolic. She is sharp of wit and her wiles are those of a strong, assertive female (to wit, the very first scene has Becky throwing a book at the schoolmistress she despises). Becky Shaw, on the other hand, is older and more of an inept screw-up. She's thirty-five which, as shows like Seinfeld proved, is today's extended twenty-one. Having failed at everything (wonder of wonder in today's high tech world, she doesn't even have a cell phone prompting the man she's been fixed up with to ask "Is my date Amish?") her desperate desire to make a blind date turn into a relationship is something of a last ditch and decidedly awkward effort to keep from falling between the cracks of life in the lane reserved for those classified as losers.

Simon's wondering about what to make of a play without a single character to root for actually points to Becky Shaw's closest resemblance to Vanity Fair. Thackeray's subtitle was "A Novel Without a Hero" and thus his characters reflected his opinion of people as being for the most part "abominably foolish and selfish" The description certainly fits Becky Shaw and company. On the other hand, Simon's appreciation of Gionfriddo's ability to write fast, funny dialogue targets its major and most welcome difference. Thackeray's style was long-winded and distinctly of its era. It thus takes a commitment by anyone reading Vanity Fair today to be won over to its enduring appeal and strengths. There's nothing dated or slow to get into about Gionfriddo's writing which has been honed by years with TV's Law & Order franchise.

Vanity Fair mavens might also recognize other traces of the main events and players in Becky Shaw: Though the novel has been much praised for its superb account of the civilian experience of the battle of Waterloo, the author's focus was on the society of that period. Our current war in Iraq plays a much more minor role in Becky Shaw but it's not overlooked in the contemporary reference studded dialogue. The considerably slimmed down estate of the recently deceased father Suzanna grieves for, and who his wife Susan has so quickly replaced with a lover, likens the family to the Sedley family's struggled with diminished wealth. Suzanna's bleeding hearts husband Andrew might be seen by some as an heir to the novel's most morally upstanding character, Dobbins. Stretch the comparisons a bit more, and Susan's boy toy, the never seen Lester, and Becky's aborted romances with black boyfriends, can be viewed as echoing Thackery's unmasking of class cnobbery.

In case Becky Shaw and these notes whet your appetite, to read or re-read Thackery's masterpiece, it's yours to download for free at either or -- or, if you own an Amazon Kindle, you can download it for about a buck.
Becky Shaw
  By Gina Gionfriddo
  Directed by Peter DuBois

Cast: David Wilson Barnes (Max), Emily Bergl (Suzanna) , Kelly Bishop (Susan), Annie Parisse (Becky), Thomas Sadoski (Andrew)
  Set Design: Derek McLane
  Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie
  Lighting Design: David Weiner
  Sound Design: Walter Trarbach
  Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
  Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street
  (212) 246 – 4422
  Tickets ($70) Patrons age 30 and under may purchase a limited number of specially-price $30 tickets in advance. A limited number of student rush tickets are $15 and are available 30 minutes prior to curtain.
  Performances: Tuesday at 7 PM; Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.
  From 12/16/08; opening 1/08/09; closing 2/01/09. Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 01/04/08
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