We are 12 years into the new century, and a lot of good American writers have written a lot of good American plays. My position on the artistic staff of the Dallas Theater Center has granted me access to read most of them. Upon hearing the news that Kitchen Dog Theater (the killer uptown theater that counts me as one of its 30 artistic company members) is opening its 22nd season with Gino Gionfriddo’s biting comedy Becky Shaw, I began to wonder if this little play was in fact my favorite of them all.
It lacks the disturbing, searing power of Lynn Nottages’ Ruined and doesn’t carry the epic darkness of Tracy Lett’s hilarious and brutal family drama, August: Osage County. Ms. Gionfriddo’s play isn’t as fresh and inventive as either Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays or Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (appearing at DTC this October!). John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt might cut deeper. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park may have more explosive social commentary.
But Becky Shaw is the one that has stuck with me the most, because its power sneaks up you. On the surface, it’s a brisk, biting commentary on contemporary social themes. But underneath the topical comedy and class discussion is a subtle little time bomb that explodes in slow motion after you have finished reading. The final image is a woman walking toward a man. She walks slowly, and the lights fade before she gets there – but you have a sneaky feeling that she does get there.
Written in 2008 and produced in New York in 2009, the play centers on Suzana, the only daughter of a wealthy East Coast family, and her “adopted” brother Max, saved as a teenager from a bad family situation by Suzana’s eccentric parents. Suzana deals with the recent death of her father by mining her grief for deeper truths and impulsively marrying an intensely sensitive young writer. Max manages the grief by trying to shine light on the family’s new economic realities (they are considerably less rich) and by isolating himself from any person who is not family (he has never been in a relationship for longer than three months). Suzana and her husband set Max up on a blind date with a woman named Becky Shaw. Something happens on the date that is both a common fear and a common occurrence. How Max and Becky choose to view this incident fractures the play in a way not dissimilar to the ideological split we see in our red state/blue state political map.
Ms. Gionriddo set this incident off-stage so we have only the testimony of each party to draw from. The play sounds like people I know (the dialogue is effortlessly brutal and hilarious); looks like people I know (Becky overdresses by half for her casual first date); feels like people I know (we can’t leave our parents or let go of our past); but belongs, somehow, to the world of Thackery and Tolstoy. Becky Shaw takes her name from Becky Sharp, the brilliant social climber of Thackery’s Vanity Fair, but her climb is harder to track and her goal more enigmatic. The way these characters grieve, date, marry and split mirrors the twisting image of the modern American family – divided from each other, devoted to each other. Becky is the alien force that obscures those bonds. That Ms. Gionfriddo never reveals whether Becky is victim or predator gives this comic masterpiece it’s chill. And it’s lasting effect.