January 14, 2009

The Post-Modern Romance of "Becky Shaw"

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl is one of the most recognizable, reliable and fecund tropes in the theater. It is how the story plays out that can tell you a lot not only about a playwright but about the times that have helped shape his or her work. Judging from the several plays about modern romance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I have seen over the past year—Hunting and Gathering, The Drunken City, Reasons to be Pretty—our time seems to be feeling decidedly unromantic about romance. Love, says one of the characters in Becky Shaw, the new post-modern romantic comedy currently playing at the Second Stage Theatre, is “doing stuff that you don’t want to do.”

Becky Shaw was written by Gina Gionfriddo, a writer for TV’s “Law & Order” shows and the author of After Ashley, a trenchant social comedy about fame that had a short but acclaimed run at the Vineyard Theatre four seasons ago. Gionfriddo’s new work about a quartet of star-crossed lovers was last year’s hit at the Humana Festival of New American Plays that is held each spring at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and the minute I read about it, I started lighting candles for it to come to New York.

It’s arrived with the same director, Peter DuBois, and two of the original cast members—Annie Parisse, who plays the title character; and David Wilson Barnes, who plays the central character, a cynic named Max. And the show's newcomers—Thomas Sadoski, terrific in the off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty; Emily Bergl, an engaging spitfire; and the always wonderfully astringent Kelly Bishop—are just as intriguingly offbeat.

The play does get off to a somewhat slow and slightly confusing start. Parisse’s Becky doesn’t even show up until the middle of the first act. But the acting is smart throughout, Gionfriddo’s lines are laugh-out-loud funny and it’s hard not to have a good time. Even though that’s the last thing you’d be doing if you found yourself in the situations the characters face as they try to sort through their romantic entanglements and financial woes.

As many reviewers have pointed out, there’s an apparently intentional connection between the title character and Becky Sharp, the pointy-elbowed social climber in "Vanity Fair," William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel about 19th century British society. But I confess that although I have happy memories of reading the book alongside a pool during one winter vacation in Cancun, I wasn't able to draw the appropriate comparative lit parallels. (Although you can click here to read a CurtainUp exegesis that does exactly that.)

Maybe I was just too obsessed with the romantic stuff. For the characters in Becky Shaw don’t just enter relationships with baggage, they come with complete luggage sets. And the solace that Gionfriddo offers is as far from the old love-as-a-cure-all as you can get. Compromising your standards, she suggests, may be the best way to get a relationship. Lying—to your partner, to yourself—is probably the best way to keep it. Bishop’s character, the mother who is essentially the one true grown-up in the group, seems to sum up the philosophy when she urges everyone to stop worrying about their problems and instead just eat a nice dinner, accompanied by a good bottle of wine.

It’s a bleak take on love and yet, Bill and I felt surprisingly buoyant when we left the theater and walked down the street to have our own dinner and wine at Le Petit Un Deux Trois, which recently opened in the space that used to house the old Le Madeleine on the corner of 43rd and Ninth. Maybe tough-minded pragmatism is the best we can hope for in these unsettling times and so we’re particularly grateful when it comes leavened with a little humor: a tonic of sulfur mixed with molasses.

And Bill and I didn’t seem to be the only ones happy to quaff it down. “We’ve just seen the best play,” said one of the women who sat at the table next to us, obviously delighted to share the news. What?, we asked. She flashed us the Playbill of Becky Shaw.

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