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Review - Becky Shaw: All's (Vanity) Fair

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It's such a shame that Second Stage's crackling production of Becky Shaw, Gina Gionfriddo's comedy of ill manners, is scheduled to close on February 1st. I can't think of a better Valentine's Day entertainment for cynically single urbanites looking to combat the champagne and roses splendor with which the coupled celebrate February 14th than this acidic portrait of the down and dirty business of allowing oneself to be emotionally available. Populated with smart, articulate characters who say clever things while living sad little lives, a night at Becky Shaw can do wonders for the self-esteem of the lonely hearted looking to both be entertained by and feel superior to those in or looking for love.

Gionfriddo's title character is inspired by Becky Sharp, the 1840's social-climbing anti-heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray's satirical Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. But before we meet her we get a taste of the nose-diving world she aspires to.

Four months a widow, Susan Slater (Kelly Bishop) has seen her substantial assets run dangerously low after taking up with a shady younger gentleman shortly following the death of her possibly cheating husband. While she scolds her daughter Suzanna (Emily Bergl) for being too sensitive ("Some women - Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana - are sensual in grief. You are not.") her sort of adopted son, Max (David Wilson Barnes) is all business in his role as family financial manager and peacemaker between mother and daughter. While a very successful lawyer, the circumstances by which Max came to be raised by the Slaters have left him with serious trust issues and an abrasive, hurtful wit; more than slight hindrances in his potential as a romantic partner.

When Suzanna and her new husband Andrew (Thomas Sadoski), a kind-hearted soul who values people over money, set Max up on a blind date, it's with the titular Ms. Shaw (Annie Parisse), a temp at Andrew's job who turns out to be a college drop-out who is estranged from her family and has very little income. Becky's helplessness - as well as her good looks and occasional signs of perceptiveness - attracts nurturing men like Andrew, who describes her as delicate while barely knowing her. Whether that helplessness is legitimate or an act is anyone's guess. The unusual details of Max and Becky's first date set into motion reactive responses from Suzanna and Andrew that challenge the family dynamic and inspired post theatre cocktail conversation between me and my guest about the nature of attraction.

Director Peter Dubois keeps the stage movement minimal, letting the evening ride on the sharp, funny and insightful verbal exchanges. His terrific cast plays their roles with a slightly heightened reality, matching the series of improbably mounting plot complications. Barnes' Max is the most mannered performance of the evening, lashing out arrogant words of contempt like William F. Buckley on Firing Line ("Romantic relationships are the pairing of equals! That woman is not my equal!") while still projecting a sense of the man's loneliness. Parisse's Becky is appropriately enigmatic and Bergl and Sadoski, as the emotionally frazzled breadwinner and her too selfless to be true spouse, nicely convey the awkwardness of a couple that rushed into marriage before getting to know each other. Appearing in only the first and final scenes, and playing a character with multiple sclerosis, Bishop's role consists mostly of scathingly arid or outrageously inappropriate comments ("When someone with damage - as we have damage - courts a lover, we must be like the pedophile with the candy.") which she lands with drop dead accuracy.

Whether or not Becky Shaw has anything new or valuable to say about relationships is debatable, but the play is best enjoyed while keeping an emotional distance from its characters. Otherwise you might recognize yourself in the mix and that's when things start getting serious.


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