Gina Gionfriddo correctly surmises that there’s reason to be as cynical today as William Makepeace Thackeray was in the 1840s when he wrote Vanity Fair about the cunning rise of Becky Sharp. Unfortunately, her new play Becky Shaw — now at Second Stage after a critically acclaimed run at last year’s Humana Festival — is as bogus as a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, and made none the better by Peter DuBois’ often poor direction and some surprisingly bad performances.
In this new work, Gionfriddo — whose day job is a writer and producer on Law & Order — suggests that contemporary society is a snake pit in which people communicate by forever administering tongue-lashings to each other, and that romantic couples only prosper if they repeatedly overcome bouts of making each other as miserable as possible.
In the show’s second scene, the couple in question — newlyweds Suzanna (Emily Bergl) and Andrew (Thomas Sadoski) — introduce his co-worker Becky (Annie Parisse) to Max (David Wilson Barnes), with whom Suzanna was brought up with as a “brother” — and with whom she later had a one-night stand. While Suzanna and Andrew try to iron out their early conjugal wrinkles, Becky attempts to win attention from caustic Max. Their potential liaison is, however, jeopardized by a robbery at gun point on their first date — one of many improbable events cluttering the action.
The playwright also assumes the only way to survive in such an immoral climate is to “learn to lie,” a credo espoused by Suzanna’s mother: the thick-skinned, plain-speaking Susan (Kelly Bishop), who’s suffering from muscular dystrophy (and therefore also has the metaphorical shakes). Susan, who appears in the show’s first and last scenes, also has the best lines — and in the quip department, Gionfriddo does have authority — floating notions like “Be careful chasing after goodness. Goodness and incompetence too often go hand in hand in men.”
Bishop also gives the evening’s best performance as a woman seeing no need to mourn her not-long-deceased husband and in thrall to an unseen beau with a shady past and present. Indeed, she is as quick with the sharp line as she was over 30 years ago as the original Sheila in A Chorus Line. For her part, Parisse manages to capture as much of Becky’s dogged vulnerability as the dramedy allows.
On the other hand, Bergl and Sadoski consistently deliver their irascible dialogue as if it’s accompanied by dotted eighth-notes. But the worst offender is Barnes — giving possibly the most annoying portrayal currently on a local stage — who gestures and sputters like an enraged automaton. Watching him is a chore and presents the temptation to pin the production’s deficiencies on him alone. But, in the end, it’s the play that’s the wrong thing.