Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, now running at Second Stage Theatre, has done one a big favor: It has annoyed me into reaffirming my belief that New York’s single biggest lack, in the past few decades, has been a major classical theater. I don’t mean an uptown theater that revives old Broadway warhorses, venturing occasionally into the modern canon. Nor do I mean a tiny downtown theater that digs up half-forgotten plays of the past. I mean a theater that lives in the canon, and lives there for the sake of its greatness. I mean a theater where the diverting tail does not wag the artistic dog.
A theater like that is necessary not only for my mental health (so worn down by decades of stage triviality that most of my few readers probably doubt it exists), but for New York’s mental health, and most of all for that of its playwrights—the ones who, like Gionfriddo, are blessed with ambition, ability, and imagination. They need it, not as a model to imitate mechanically—though a writer who copied Sophocles, Molière, or Ibsen would be doing a wise thing—but as a challenge. The bar needs to be set high because our best writers deserve the challenge; let them meet it, and see what results.
Gionfriddo’s new play proves that she means to claim classical stature and take risks of classical size. Centering an upper-class comedy about mating habits and financial shenanigans on a character named “Becky Shaw” announces an allegiance both to Thackeray, who invented Vanity Fair‘s scheming heroine, Becky Sharp, and to the great comic playwright who made the interlocking of mores and money one of his special areas of expertise.
To this, Gionfriddo adds an extra layer of contemporary self-awareness: Unlike the conscious schemer Becky Sharp, this modern Becky (played by Annie Parisse with an endearing woeful helplessness) is a neurotic jumble of traits, half-aggressor and half-victim, a chronic loser only partly aware of her gift for targeting the vulnerable spots in other people’s psyches. Much of the action lets us watch Becky learning to hone her manipulative skills while she strives to entrap Max (David Wilson Barnes), a fabulously rich money manager whose emotional life is encrusted with a condescending negativity as thick as medieval armor. Whether Becky wields the blowtorch that can cut through it is left an open question at the end.
A bigger question, though, might be to what extent Becky, or any of the other characters, is actually the play’s subject. For all the wit and astuteness Gionfriddo musters—and a lot of her dialogue has a marvelous sharp-tongued zest—she seems engulfed in a hopeless struggle to focus her burgeoning materials. The lengthy opening scene deals with the financial troubles of Max’s adoptive family, graphing his knotty relationship with his stepsister, Susanna (Emily Bergl).
Even after Becky finally materializes in Scene 2, through the intervention of the sympathetic sap of a husband, Andrew (Thomas Sadoski), whom Susanna has abruptly acquired during the scene change, we spend a lot of time watching Max sort out the messy affairs of Susanna and her physically impaired but nonchalantly sardonic mother, Susan (Kelly Bishop), whose offstage lover is bleeding her dry. Susanna herself, devastated by her father’s death and the revelations that followed it (including the shaky state of the family fortune), serves alternately as ally and obstacle to Max’s efforts. Fixated on Max since childhood, but inexplicably smitten with Andrew, Susanna is as much the play’s central figure as Becky; certain scenes in which Gionfriddo pushes hard to fill in the details of Becky’s story suggest hastily applied playwriting-class Band-Aids.
The Band-Aids feel necessary because of the big shortcoming that keeps Becky Shaw from standing free among the great social comedies it strives to emulate: Its characters inhabit no known world. This isn’t a matter of naturalistic accuracy, but of common sense. Writers from Congreve to Noël Coward, or, over here, from Clyde Fitch to María Irene Fornés, have made audiences believe in characters as extreme and verbally extravagant as those Gionfriddo conceives, and convinced their public that those characters inhabited a believable world just one magical step away from our own.
Partly, Gionfriddo’s story loses focus because her characters don’t convince; you’re always asking yourself why or whether they would even bother making some of the excessive efforts they go through. (Max is so relentlessly hostile that it’s hard to believe anyone would go to the trouble of fixing him up with a blind date.) And—as in far too many recent plays—the world outside the characters’ largely cushioned lives never seems fully imagined. Instead, it’s evoked in the kind of buzzword-laden comedy that owes its lineage to the sitcom. Gionfriddo’s narrative thrust is aimed at people interested in human beings; her verbal displays often seem aimed toward those more interested in hipster yuks. You can’t write, any more than you can walk, in two directions at once.
The pity of it is that all the elements for a major experience lurk, half-tapped, in Peter DuBois’s production. Barnes’s overwound, nonstop Max, spitting out his lines like machine-gun bullets, leads a team of first-rate actors, each of whom seems to be searching for the one additional trait that will make the role immortal. Derek McLane’s set, too, seems to stop just short of the stylistic definition that designers like Cecil Beaton and Christian Bérard gave high comedy half a century ago. But the shortfall is in the script: With fussing and contriving, Gionfriddo has locked the substance of her play away from us, instead of releasing it to stand free on the stage. The great writers who inspired her cared for their art too much to fuss.