Theater

Money and Desperation Drive Gina Gionfriddo’s Lively “Can You Forgive Her?”

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Since Gina Gionfriddo swiped the title of her new play from that of Anthony Trollope’s 1864–65 serialized novel, a tiny textual comparison seems in order. Take livelihood: The word appears once in the book, on the first page. Trollope sardonically recounts how his heroine’s father wed into wealth: “[H]e had succeeded in earning, or perhaps I might better say, in obtaining, a livelihood.” The quaint locution must have caught Gionfriddo’s eye, because it rings a dozen times throughout her caustic social comedy, mostly brandished as a self-help panacea by single mother and bartender Tanya (Ella Dershowitz). “Drinking and being afraid to go through your dead mother’s stuff is not a livelihood,” Tanya admonishes her grieving, stuck-in-reverse boyfriend/fiancé, Graham (Darren Pettie). Can You Forgive Her? — the play, at least — is driven by the soul-shriveling contest between happiness and solvency, and how marriage is rarely the solution. As the Victorian name-check makes clear, these are not new issues, but Gionfriddo works hard to wring postfeminist laughs from them.

The action takes place one Halloween in a worn-out family home on the Jersey Shore, a property that Tanya urges Graham to renovate so it may be rented or flipped. One side of the living room is dominated by file storage boxes labeled Novels, Memoirs, Poetry, etc. — Graham’s dead mother’s pathetic, unpublished output. The son has few illusions about the literary value of this forlorn mass, yet he can’t bring himself to read it or trash it. How Graham (and Tanya) finally choose to deal with this glum legacy bookends the 95-minute work.

Tanya serves drinks in a nearby watering hole that Graham helped set up (“I’m the guy who gets the party started,” he later explains by way of job description). After an opening scene that establishes Tanya’s hunger for middle-class stability and Graham’s squirrely reluctance to settle down, Gionfriddo introduces her acid-tongued narrative catalyst: Miranda (Amber Tamblyn), a potty-mouthed party girl. Miranda was ejected from the bar after getting into a fight with her date, whom she microaggressively calls “the Indian.” She’s cooling off at Graham’s place while Tanya finishes her shift. The long middle of the play is a leisurely revelation of character as Graham and Miranda quaff Jim Beam and discover how much they have in common: sad mothers, self-destructive tendencies, and a certain insouciant fatalism — “the Big Blackness,” per Miranda.

Dressed in a “sexy witch” Halloween costume and tossing off cynical one-liners, Miranda is a juicy stage beast, a millennial Holly Golightly who drops F-bombs and screws rich men for cash and swag. Her regular sugar daddy is David (Frank Wood), a wealthy Manhattan plastic surgeon of zero emotional intelligence. She hopes, foolishly, that one day he’ll pay off her mountainous debt, accrued through “good schools and good living, baby!” When the wary, petulant David shows up at Graham’s house (Miranda had been using “the Indian” to stalk him in New Jersey), each character’s financial and amatory problems are thrown into sharp relief. Can Graham move past his mother’s death and join Tanya in suburban respectability? Will Miranda drown in bills or continue to quasi-prostitute herself? Will David, whom Miranda has tried to improve, throw her over for an older woman, now that he’s marginally more human? Can You Forgive Her? isn’t heavy on plot, but relies on backstory and offstage action; it moves at all due mainly to Miranda’s constant stream of insults and bravado, her comic determination to live in the manner to which she’s become accustomed. (“I’m losing my sugar daddy to a menopausal dyke and there’s an Indian out there who wants to kill me,” she summarizes, helpfully.) In fact, as we head to a climax, you might be wondering whose story this is, anyway: Graham’s or Miranda’s?

Some of that focal blur, and an overall sense of sketchiness, are mitigated by Peter DuBois’s shrewd, compact staging and a feisty, well-balanced ensemble. Part chaos agent, part truth-teller, part literary confection, Miranda is a specialty for Gionfriddo: the financially disadvantaged but wily schemer, loosely inspired by a novelistic heroine. As with the title character in her equally acerbic Becky Shaw (descended from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair striver Becky Sharp), Miranda is an aspirational demon who feels cheated by family and fate. It’s a role any young actress would tear into, and Tamblyn, whose acting CV is tilted more toward movies and TV, seems a trifle vague and lacking confidence in her opening beats. Still, her pouty victim of a liberal-arts education, forever hiking up her Spanx and whipping her hair back, grows on you. Pettie, exuding bruised but decent manliness, serves as a grounding force in his scenes. Leaning hard on a nasal delivery, Dershowitz might be taking Tanya’s annoying factor too far, but Wood scoops up bushels of laughs as the cold-fish moneybags addicted to abuse.

Gionfriddo is by no means the only playwright weighing women’s options in a brutal sexual economy. (Lynn Nottage and Martyna Majok are also mining that vein diligently.) But she’s having the most stylish, epigrammatic fun with it. Can You Forgive Her? may ultimately settle for pat resolutions and on-the-nose imagery: Miranda crawls on her hands and knees collecting money that her date from the bar, Sateesh (Eshan Bay), has just thrown in her face, while grasping a self-help financial bible for women. But at least the play thinks harder about transactional love than do its grasping antiheroes, stranded between the good life and a livelihood.

Can You Forgive Her?
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
212-353-3366
vineyardtheatre.org
Through June 11

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