East Coast aggression drives quirky comedy
Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw isn’t informed so much by the question “Is it better to lie than to hurt someone with the truth?” but rather by the statement, “Life is pain; lies and truth are mere tools to help one salve that pain.” Curious Theatre Company’s regional premiere of this crackling comedy brings all of the play’s East Coast energy to bear on Rocky Mountain audiences.
Becky Shaw’s setup makes it seem like a sister work to Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, in which a chance encounter between a straight-laced man and a manic-pixie-dream-girl careens from one crazy calamity to the next. In reality, however, Becky Shaw is much more a slice-of-life comic character study filled with deeply flawed people than an action-adventure-romance all about wish fulfillment.
The titular character and plot-propelling blind date don’t even occur until after a much necessary, relational foundation has been laid. The play opens with psychology Ph.D. candidate Suzanna Slater (Rachel Fowler) wallowing in woe in the wake of her father’s death some months earlier. Daddy’s death has thrown Suzanna and her mother, Susan (Billie McBride), into fiscal uncertainty, and Suzanna’s adopted brother, Max (Bill Hahn), is charged with sifting through the economic rubble and finding a way to keep mother and daughter financially afloat.
The snappy, efficient introduction to Suzanna, Max and Susan paints each of them in bold, broad strokes. Daddy’s girl Suzanna, though intelligent, suffers from acute indecisiveness and is riddled with neuroses. Suzanna’s condition is immediately understandable when Susan storms the scene. One mother of a mother, Susan sees the world as a cold, hard place in which the end more than justifies any means. While Susan’s worldview has seemingly hobbled Suzanna, Max embraces it. He is a Wall Street Terminator with a caustic barb always at the ready.
The play flashes forward a few months to find Suzanna married to aspiring writer Andrew Porter ( John Jurcheck), a touchy-feely type so sensitive that pornography literally brings him to tears. Suzanna and Andrew set Max up with one of Andrew’s coworkers, Becky Shaw (Karen Slack), and though we don’t see the date itself play out, its ramifications shape the rest of the action on stage and lead to unexpected conflicts and loads of laughs.
The dialogue in Becky Shaw is some of the tightest and most outrageous I’ve heard in some time. Lines like “love is a happy byproduct of use” abound. This is an extremely urbane play with a tempo that is all Eastern-seaboard megalopolis. If you’re one of the myriad transplants from New York, Boston or anywhere thereabouts, and you crave a taste of the old country amidst the mellowness of Colorado, Becky Shaw will effortlessly transport you back to the land where “the fuck” is as indispensible a conversational tool as “right on” is here.
As well-written as Becky Shaw is, Curious Theatre Company elevates it with multiple award-worthy performances. Hahn, who first astounded me in Bent nearly nine years ago, once again exceeded all of my expectations. His Max is the prototypical angry Easterner. He stalks the stage dispensing cutting observations and hard truths, but he remains always a credible character and never a cartoon. Fowler shows the most range, as she gives us a Suzanna alternately aimless and fiercely focused. And McBride absolutely owns the stage during each of her scenes as the castiron matriarch.
The secrets of the Slater family and those of odd, little Becky Shaw bubble to the surface as needed, and each serves as another opportunity for character and audience alike to weigh the efficacy of truth versus lie. The language and sentiments are as harsh as they are hilarious and had the audience on opening night howling — sometimes in small pockets and often all together.
If Becky Shaw had a theme song, it would be April Smith and the Great Picture Show’s “Terrible Things,” and I mean that in the most lovingly nihilistic way possible.
ON THE BILL: Becky Shaw plays through April 14. Tickets are $18-$42. For tickets or information, call 303-623-0524 or visit www.curioustheatre.org. 1080 Acoma St., Denver.