nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
January 16, 2009
When Max sweeps into Suzanna's hotel room at the start of Gina Gionfriddo's witty and disturbing play, their relationship is mysterious. They have the easy comfort of husband and wife (except they stay in separate rooms) or brother and sister (but they are dealing with "her" parents). But the story is soon revealed; although not biologically related, Suzanna's parents took Max into the house when he was eight and they were raised more or less as brother and sister. Unfortunately, despite a whirlwind performance by David Wilson Barnes as the surly, mean, and compelling Max, and an earnest and thoughtful performance by Emily Bergl as head-in-the-therapist's-couch Suzanna, something subtle is missing. It's hard to picture these people as children, or teenagers, or young adults together. Although this relationship is the heart of the play the surface is never quite penetrated, though a funny, thought-provoking, and constantly surprising surface it is.
The eponymous Becky Shaw doesn't come on the scene until about a third of the way through the show, when Suzanna and her brand-new husband set her up on a blind date with Max. Annie Parisse captures Becky's sweet viciousness perfectly, and her presence forces Max to confront truths he would rather bury. The play is ultimately the cantankerous, bullying, all-too-human Max's story, and we are deeply rooting for him to finally become part of the family he grew up in.
Peter DuBois keeps this fast-paced production on track, making sure all the laughs land and piloting around one surprising emotional turn after another. But as I said before, there is an emotional subtlety his interpretation never quite catches. Even during some of Max and Suzanna's most intense scenes I was reminding myself of who they were, why they were fighting, and why they cared about each other. Elements of subtlety, history, and subtext are missing elsewhere in the play as well, most notably with Suzanna's husband Andrew. Played by Thomas Sadoski, Andrew is described by other characters as a sensitive would-be novelist who gets an ego trip out of helping girls in trouble, and this is exactly what we see. In fact, he plays the ego trip so well it's a bit of a mystery as to why all these wounded birds end up on his doorstep instead of flapping madly in the other direction. The only cast member who seems immune to this is the marvelous Kelly Bishop in a supporting role as Suzanna's mother Susan. In a funny but wrenching moment she asks all the younger characters why they're so hung up on intimacy, because well-placed lies make relationships work. Whether or not this is true in life, it's certainly true on stage, and Susan's secrets are a big part of what makes this brassy and complicated performance work.
But in the end, this elusive missing quality only means that what could have been a transcendently brilliant production is merely extremely wonderful. The script, the actors, and the design gel beautifully and the script is as disturbing as it is funny. Gina Gionfriddo has sharp insight into some of the subtler greys of the human soul, and her skill exposes them for amusement and thrills, forcing us to confront the dark truth that no matter how hard any of us try or how much therapy we have, mixed motives and disappointment are simply a part of life.