Thackeray Quackery

Written by Leonard Jacobs on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Letting loose a bull into a china shop is one thing when the merchandise is pristine. When the bull is lost and gentle, and the china already shattered, it’s hard to assert that the bull has done the harm.

Such are the metaphors under girding Becky Shaw, the scorching, satisfying Gina Gionfriddo comedy that was commissioned by and premiered last year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and now is being re-mounted Off-Broadway by Second Stage Theatre. —

Continuing with the china shop metaphor, the play’s breakables are an elegant four-piece set needing a pair of scenes to be arranged. Suzanna (Emily Bergl) is the heartbroken daughter of Susan (Kelly Bishop), an ineffectual widow confronted by her honorary son, the caustic, unfeeling Max (David Wilson Barnes), about the family’s fast-fading finances and her late husband’s sexual peccadilloes. Although Suzanna and Max comport themselves like siblings (how Max came into the family is revealed superbly later on), he deeply loves Suzanna, despite some obvious intimacy issues. The scene ends with more of his withering sarcasm and the sexual consummation of their relationship.

During the dialogue leading to that moment, Max instructed Suzanna to quit grieving. It’s “instructed” because Max never suggests: as dynamically limned by Barnes, he barks, sneers and jeers, verbally abusing anyone defying him. So when we learn in the next scene that Suzanna heeded Max’s advice—meeting and marrying Andrew (Thomas Sadowski), a crunchy-granola male feminist and aspiring novelist, following a whirlwind courtship—it’s unsurprising. But it’s the fury and reeking disappointment within Max, next to be stoked by the title character, which shatters everything.

For now Gionfriddo’s play really begins. Suzanna and Andrew fix Max up with Becky Shaw (Annie Parisse), a pert and pretty admin from Andrew’s job without a car, money or prospects. If her name recalls Becky Sharp, the social-climbing lass from William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who leaves a destructive trail among the morally dubious well to do, the coincidence is not coincidental. On their date, Max and Becky were robbed at gunpoint, had hotel-room sex and then Max offered Becky cash for her to leave.

Traumatized on multiple levels, Becky pesters Max for some kind of closure, but he characteristically resists. Andrew now steps in to console Becky, offering her the same solace he once gave Suzanna in her grief. Naturally, this alienates Suzanna, secretly elating Max.

Amid some of the most delightfully acid bickering since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Gionfriddo later stirs in Susan—whose unseen young lover is fostering yet more chaos—and soon it seems that the onus is on Becky for all the broken porcelain.

But the playwright, most of the actors and director Peter DuBois have other ideas—that’s why Becky Shaw may be a tapestry of clashing classes yet never feels didactic.

Barnes, Sadowski and Parisse were all in the Louisville run, and their work has grown more shaded and secure. Barnes is less shrill, thankfully, but just as savage—a shocking, rock-solid performance. Riding herd upon full lips and doey eyes, Sadowski is simpering and spineless but Gionfriddo has given Andrew a clearer character arc, so it’s never for naught. And what a tragicomic godsend Parisse is. With a voice like a bullet hitting glass and a svelte frame that undermines Becky’s loser-with-a-capital-L mentality, Parisse may act like a basket case but it’s beautiful one, with a latticework worth your investigation.

Dubois, Gionfriddo and casting director Mele Nagler are off their game in terms of Bergl and Bishop. Bergl’s close-cropped hair detracts from her character’s sensuality, but more than that, the actress was too often disconnected emotionally from her costars. Bishop won a Tony more than 30 years ago for creating the role of ice-queen Sheila in A Chorus Line, and at times you wondered if she was channeling her again. Still, there’s a late scene when Susan offers a flicker of warmth—enough, perhaps, to melt the icicles that have formed between these disintegrating nut jobs. But it’s too late, for the bull has left the store, destined for greener pastures.

Through Mar. 15, Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.); times vary $70.