It’s a wonder a theater can ever get me to buy a ticket for a show when I persist in such stupidities as thinking Becky Shaw, the new American play at the Almeida Theater, was in any way, shape or form related to Becky Sharp, the protagonist of Vanity Fair. But sometimes I’m just really thick headed and the beginning of the year, when my brain is full of thoughts of scuba diving on the Red Sea and the Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival, well, I’m just really not thinking “Ooh, I bet that new play with the title that sounds just like the heroine of Thackeray’s 19th century novel has absolutely nothing to do with it and is instead an insightful and yet funny play about modern America;” no, no, I’m looking for easy parallels within the tiny capacity of my brain and I just assumed it was mostly likely an update of Vanity Fair (set in America) and I was hearing it wrong. This kind of thing is an occasional problem when you fetishistically avoid any news whatsover of a new play lest you ruin the enjoyment of seeing a completely unknown script unfold in front of you; sometimes, you really just don’t know what you’re signing up for. Basically I got “funny” and “new play” and “15 quid” (thanks to a deal) and I said, “Okay, fine, Becky Whatever, bring it on!”
As it turns out this play had NOTHING to do with Becky Sharp whatsoever. Despite the potential for catastrophe, I’m so glad I went, as I got, for once, all of the joy of seeing a wonderful new play without a hint of overreaching or pretentiousness or being talked down to; it had an unusual but intriguing story (a blind date gone horribly wrong), fine acting, and a writing style that made me wonder just how so many authors have managed to go wrong when clearly, modern plays in modern settings can be done very well. There’s a prayer that Man in Chair from Drowsy Chaperone says, in short, “Oh please let it be good! And not too long,” and this was, for me and MiC, a prayer answered (though it went a bit over the 2:15 running time – by at least 20 minutes – the night I saw it).
This play works so much better than a million other flash-in-the-pan “issue” plays (hello, Earthquakes in London) because it’s really about people and how the interact with each other and, deliciously, how they lie to each other (and to themselves). Heart of the show is Max (David Wilson Barnes, imported from the off-Broadway cast), who’s got a complicated relationship with his, shall we say, childhood best friend Suzanna (Anna Madeley). He is blunt to the point of asshole with her and everyone else, but his deep love for her seems to animate nearly all of his actions … except for when he’s thinking about how to make money (this being 95% of all of his thoughts). Suzanna is a pile of aggression with major problems with her mother (Hayden Gwynne), who is, meanwhile, far more willful than her daughter but just as aggressive. The three of them are horrible and rude to each other … and very, very funny as they are, underneath it all, both extremely honest, insightful, and caring. I just couldn’t believe how much I was laughing at the three of them being terrible to each other, though: it was so fun watching East Coasters let it rip!
Sadly, neither Becky Shaw (Daisy Haggard) nor fellow Second Act arrival Andrew (Vincent Montuel) seem as well-written or as well acted. Becky starts to become more fun as you start to wonder just how much of her hysteria is put on; meanwhile, Mr Montuel seems to be struggling to make his character seem real. Admittedly, a feminist guy with a Munchhausen complex might be difficult to make sense out of, but his line delivery just seem kind of flat (unlike his pecs, phoar!, but was there really a need for him to be walking around without his shirt on?).
Becky Shaw is an awesome play that knocked me in the head with its familiar depiction of modern, everyday life. We bicker with our parents, we waste time watching bad television, we stomp around our shitty apartments yelling into our cellphones. We form connections with people that we can’t even find the words to express because to say those words out loud would deny the order and simplicity we want our lives to have. That pulse of the modern, banal and transcendent, conflicted and overwhelmed, is something I’ve seen very rarely in new plays. I want to feel the reality of how we live now on the stage, so new and now that it’s like spending an evening with your friends, so familiar that every pop-culture reference sounds like it’s something you just heard on the bus. And for me, an American abroad, to hear it in my vernacular and about my culture was a big bleeding pile of joy, blankie AND bunny slippers AND Kraft macaroni and cheese all at the same time. And it was effortless rather than cutesy or “issue of the month.” Rock on Ms Gina Gionfriddo, well written.
However, in my mind it’s really the triangle between the three people with the longest relationship that seems the most solid; but the whole train-wreck of social circumstances is just a riot to ride. And I did get really caught up in how each of the three leads got to be the way they are. To me, that’s what defines good writing; when you sit there trying to figure out what kind of childhood made a character you just saw on stage into the person they are during the course of the play, because, really, they never existed anywhere at all other than as words written on a page. And for sucking me in and making me laugh, I have to say, good job Gina and thank you Almeida for picking this show. I’ll really be looking forward to seeing her next play.
(This review is for a performance that took place on January 18th, 2011. The show continues through March 5th.)