In Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, currently playing at the Huntington Theatre Company, we’re introduced to a well to-do family that tells each other lies to cover up secrets, to get along, and even to survive. This isn’t much different from any of us in our families.
The opening scene we learn, as the characters do, of some family secrets. The financial advisor to the four months deceased patriarch (whom we’re lead to believe was a very successful businessman) of the family has confessed to also being his gay lover. Nobody is particularly shocked or surprised. Not his wife Susan (played by Maureen Anderman), his daughter Suzanna (Keira Naughton), or family friend/adopted son Max (Seth Fisher). Life goes on.When they are alone, Max asks Suzanna if she even suspected her father’s homosexuality. She responds unsurprised, only saying she was waiting for a deathbed confession. Their already complex relationship (lifelong friends and adopted siblings) becomes more even more so.
Ironically, the solid rock of the family is the adopted son, Max. (He was adopted after his mother died even though his father was still living). A successful financial advisor in his own right, in his adopted family he learned how to run a business. He takes the reins and begins to steer the family through life without father and now without money: a significant change in status. Everyone trusts Max to lead the family through the crisis. It is something he excels at. Susan, the ill matriarch of the family, freely and sharply acknowledges to Suzanna that as her biological daughter, she would be unable to fulfill that role.
With an impeccably timed performance by Seth Fisher, we experience Max’s affection and loyalty to his adopted family while also enduring his unfiltered caustic edge and tough love. He charms us as he effortlessly is in control of every situation coming his way. We forgive his hostility and the outrageous and bluntly truthful comments he makes. Like Suzanna, we note his lack of empathy; understanding value is based on his or his adopted family’s interest.
Seven months pass and we meet Suzanna’s new husband, Andrew (played by Eli James), an aspiring writer who’s traded in the casual dress of making lattes for a suit, managing an office, increasing his income, and supporting his wife. Where Andrew has sensitivity to the emotional needs of his wife and friends, Max calculates the value of human worth and goodness based on finances rather than their capacity and thoughtfulness. We see Suzanna’s depth in the scenes between her and Andrew. Gionfriddo contrasts his emotional and sensitive character with subtle sharp businesslike traits Suzanna has learned from her family. In these scenes we see strength which we don’t see Suzanna have with her own family.
With the best intentions (but also some trepidation) Suzanna and Andrew set up Max with Andrew’s disheveled, confused, over the weight-limit emotional baggage carrying Becky who doesn’t earn enough to own a cell phone.
Stories of blind dates are often the setups for hysterical farce comedy. Instead, Gionfriddo has taken cues from Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw freeing her characters from the obligation of social constraint allowing them to speak their mind even if that means the barbs slice and cut instead of bruise. With her collaborator, director Peter DuBois (Huntington Artistic Director), we find ourselves laughing at the humor before we catch ourselves fully understanding the cruelty. DuBois is no stranger to Becky Shaw. He directed the production at the 2008 Humana Festival and successful Off-Broadway run.
We’re deceived, though. One would think that the setup of the emotionally instable Becky would be ripe pickings for the edge of Max’s wit. We’re led to believe he’s sharp enough to be invincible and invulnerable, emerging unscathed from spending time with the supposedly innocent and weak Becky (Wendy Hoopes). The more well-adjusted Max easily copes with the chaotic events of the night. Afterwards, Becky remains traumatized. Of all the characters, Becky is the least defined and, perhaps, the only one that Max is not able to swiftly and skillfully navigate.
Becky Shaw relies on strong performances built on the nuances of the relationships between the characters. The world is carefully constructed from Becky’s disheveled, lack of style from Jeff Mahshie’s costumes to Derek McLane’s hotel rooms and graduate student apartments in Providence. However, one could question the purpose of staging Becky Shaw in the Huntington’s larger space, the Boston University Theatre. The only one McClane’s settings which requires a grand or expansive space is the final one at the spacious estate of Susan in Richmond. While the change in class, money, and lifestyle is apparent, the impact isn’t enough.
While Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw brings up questions about the way families communicate and how we extend protection to acquaintances in need, the power of her words are lost to the scale of the production. What is lost is some of the tense emotional family interactions and uneasiness of their relationships. The audience loses the power of the experience and the reflection on some of the forced interactions we may have in our own lives.
Nicholas Peterson is the founder and publisher of ExploreBostonTheatre.com.