Gina Gionfriddo takes a fresh new look at the repercussions of blind dating, or at least of one particular blind date, in her wickedly funny, often biting, highly original Becky Shaw, now getting a terrific West Coast Premiere at South Coast Repertory.

It does take a while for said blind date to happen, and for the play’s titular heroine/villainess to make her first appearance. It also takes most of the first act for Becky Shaw to really gather steam, but once its second act is underway, it becomes obvious why Gionfriddo’s play has had so much East Coast acclaim.

We spend the first quarter hour or more with three of Becky Shaw’s four other characters—eight months before the blind date in question even takes place.

Cynical 30something Max (Brian Avers), a successful money manager, is getting ready to go out to dinner with Suzanna (Tessa Auberjonois), his sort-of stepsister and Susan (Barbara Tarbuck), Suzanna’s mother. The “sort of” in Max and Suzanna’s ambiguous relationship is a result of Susan and her husband’s having taken in a near parentless ten-year-old Max some twenty or so years ago and raising him as their own. Now, several months after her father’s death, Suzanna seems incapable of emerging from her grief and can’t understand how Max could have recovered so quickly from their shared loss. As regards her mother, Suzanna is even less forgiving, especially when she learns that Susan wants the man she’s been spending considerable time with to join them over dinner for a discussion of the family’s financial woes.

Not much gets resolved during this first scene, though we do get to know not just Max and Suzanna but also Susan, a longtime sufferer of multiple sclerosis, unapologetic about her interest in her younger male friend or the role that her money may play in his interest in her. On a more significant note, Susan’s exit from the contentious first scene prompts a significant change in Max and Susanna’s relationship, a long-percolating sexual attraction between the two finally erupting into something more.

Fast forward eight months and Suzanna is married, though not to her almost-sibling. No, the object of her marital affection is Andrew (Graham Michael Hamilton), Max’s mirror opposite, a teddy-bear so uninterested in financial security that he happily works a minimum wage job in order to spend time on his writing—not that he’s ever likely to make much money at that either.

On the evening in question, Suzanna and Andrew have set Max up with a coworker of Andrew’s, the titular Becky (Angela Goethals), a young woman whose absolute wrongness for Max would seem obvious to anyone with two eyes, but not to pure-hearted Andrew. Becky is, it turns out, a lowly office temp who dropped out of Brown University, lost her Ivy League scholarship in the process, and ended up sacrificing her family for the sake of a “true love” that turned out to be as real as fools’ gold. Hardly the best match for a born cynic like Max.

Naturally, Max and Becky’s date turns out about as bad as a bad date could, prompting Max to decide to cut his losses and run. What he doesn’t count on is Becky Shaw’s absolute inability to take no for an answer.

Fortunately, as previously noted, playwright Gionfriddo resists the temptation to turn Becky into a rabbit-boiling stalker, and much of the fun of Becky Shaw the play is observing the many ways Becky refuses to “get” how absolutely uninterested Max is in her. Meanwhile, Suzanna and Andrew’s marital relationship suffers from the opposing sides each takes in Becky’s pursuit of Max.

What makes Becky Shaw so special, besides Gionfriddo’s deliciously acerbic way with words and the vivid performances of the SCR cast, is its absolute unpredictability. This is a play whose plot and character twists cannot be fit into any standard mold or pattern, so much so that it makes you aware how many plays are indeed predictable with easy-to-categorize characters. Becky Shaw can get messy at time, but so too can real life.

Those who saw Auberjonois in SCR’s Crimes Of The Heart, a role which won her a Scenie for Best Performance By A Featured Actress/Comedy, will be impressed—to say the very least—that the actress who proved herself a consummate physical comedienne as blonde busybody Chick is one and the same with the dark-haired dramatic actress who creates in Suzanna a character of depth, vulnerability, and passion. Talk about versatility!

A superb Avers takes verbal bully Max and makes him the proverbial character you love to hate and hate to love. When he tells an overdressed Becky, “You look like a birthday cake” (without a hint of kindness in his voice) or declares in no uncertain terms that he will never date Becky again because “romantic relationships are a pairing of equals, and that woman is not my equal,” you gasp at his insensitivity and wish you had his chutzpah. As for Hamilton as the too-good-for-his-own-good Andrew, the Julliard grad’s boy-next-door good looks and likeability are matched by considerable acting chops.

Though Tarbuck has only a few scenes as the crusty Susan, her total grasp of the role and her powerful stage presence make the part seem twice as big. It helps that Gionfriddo has given her great lines (“Truly knowing someone is a prescription for misery”) and a great character to play (when Susan’s got something to say, you can be damned sure she’s going to say it), but the role wouldn’t be half as good in lesser hands.

Finally, there’s Goethals, an actress who never fails to impress with her versatility (Becky is about as different from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf’s Honey as two characters could be), her range, and the depth she brings to each role she plays. If you end up liking the insufferable Becky as much as you do (and that’s quite a bit), it’s in great measure because Goethals is so darned good at making you like her even as you want to run for your life.

Since no actor can create a great performance without expert direction, it’s fortunate that South Coast Repertory has placed Becky Shaw in the assured hands of Pam MacKinnon, the production marking the fourth time she has directed a Gionfriddo play.

SCR has also entrusted Becky Shaw to the Broadway-caliber designers that make watching and listening to a South Coast Rep production a guaranteed visual and audio treat. Since Gionfriddo’s play requires frequent changes of scene, it’s fortunate that scenic designer Daniel Ostling has been given the resources to create a superb revolving set which transforms itself in an instant from a 2-star hotel room to Suzanna and Andrew’s upscale Providence apartment to Becky’s considerably more modest digs to a bar in Providence to a hotdog stand to Susan’s elegant Richmond, Virginia mansion. Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes are, as always, a perfect fit for each character, with special snaps going to Becky’s god-awful “birthday cake” dress. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting couldn’t be better, nor could Michael K. Hooker’s original music and sound design. Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Chrissy Church is stage manager.

Gina Gionfriddo’s unique spin on life, the intriguing characters she has created, and the actors who bring them to three-dimensional, warts-and-all life, make Becky Shaw yet another South Coast Rep winner. Los Angeles playgoers would do well to schedule monthly drives down to Costa Mesa. I can’t think of a single L.A. counterpart to South Coast Repertory that combines this much quality and quantity with such absolute consistency. Misalliance, In The Next Room (or the vibrator play), and now Becky Shaw. South Coast Repertory has opened its 2010-2011 season with three sizzling hits in a row!

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
October 31, 2010
Photos: Scott Brinegar/SCR

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