No One is Safe as the Barbs Fly in Becky Shaw at Dobama Theatre

BECKY SHAW THROUGH MARCH 29 AT DOBAMA THEATRE 230 LEE road, cleveland heights, 216-932-3396

The often unspoken truth about human relationships is that they are essentially selfish arrangements. All people consciously or unconsciously maneuver other people so that they get their back scratched — financially, emotionally, physically, you name it.

And as the Seinfeld show once observed in another context, there's nothing wrong with that. Let's face it: If we humans weren't selfish, focused on getting what we need, we'd never have enough resources to share with anyone else.

Of course, when five selfish people collide in the scathing, satirical comedy Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, now at Dobama Theatre, there are fireworks aplenty. This quintet of gloriously flawed young strivers pretty much covers the continuum of unfortunate social behavior, from battered and vulnerable to rapacious and cruel.

And thanks to a tight production that fairly twangs under the direction of Donald Carrier, the playwright's sharp-edged dialogue shoves the audience down a perilous, icy chute on well-oiled roller skates. These characters don't fit into easy boxes as each develops different facets to their personalities, continually challenging easy assumptions about who they really are.

While the play bounces up and down the east coast, it begins in a hotel room where 35-year-old Suzanna is lamenting the death of her father. She is being administered a tough-love sort of therapy by her brother Max, who was adopted by Suzanna's parents when he was ten. He is now a brutally successful financial planner who also administers the money for the family.

Suzanna is bathing her sorrow by watching one of those ubiquitous true crime, young-woman-found-dead TV shows, but Max snaps it off, saying she shouldn't waste her time with "dead prostitutes on the Autopsy Channel." Sort of a Gordon Gekko on steroids, Max then tells Suzanna she should suck it up, stop sniveling and "mourn with a big dick."

This is the kind of biting repartee Gionfriddo is good at, and she lathers all the scenes with her special brand of snark. Turns out, the borderline hapless Suzanna gets married to Andrew, a man who is so achingly feminist and protective of wounded women it almost seems pathological (to wit, pornography makes him cry). Indeed, he even sets up brother-in-law Max with a young female clerk from his office, Becky Shaw, who is not well-off and clearly in need of some serious rehab work.

It's no surprise that this mismatch turns into the blind date from hell. What is a surprise is how the playwright continually uncovers new sides to each of the characters, turning the story this way and that to spark questions about who is to blame for what. Or, is anyone to blame?

As Suzanna, Lara Knox crafts a wonderfully nuanced woman. She is buffeted among her over-solicitous husband, her slash-and-burn adopted brother, and her mom, Susan, who suffers from MS and is negotiating her own relationship with an unseen fellow. Laura Starnik lands some big laughs as Susan, especially toward the end when she tries to gain control of this fractious group. It seems like she walked straight out of one of those Marigold Hotel movies.

Anjanette Hall treads a fine line as Becky, a character clearly modeled after Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair. By turns vulnerable and purposeful, innocent and scheming, Becky is an interesting wild card that the playwright throws into this familial deck. Of course, Andrew is drawn to the helpless-bird part of Becky's persona, and Ryan Zarecki makes Andrew's ministrations both comforting and queasy, fitting in nicely to the show's ever-shifting character milieu.

In the showiest role as curmudgeon-in-training Max, Geoff Knox slices and dices his lines with exacting precision. When he learns that his date Becky doesn't have a cell phone, he sarcastically asks, "Is she Amish?" But Knox also shows a different side later on, giving new perspective to Max's brash, testosterone-driven vibe developed, perhaps, due to his somewhat fractured past.

The production zips along at a furious pace, and that leads to a small wrinkle. On opening night, the first scene was played at such a fevered, high-volume pitch that Suzanna, Max and then Susan seemed like over-caffeinated honey badgers stuffed into too small a cage. This take-no-prisoners approach leaves Max, in particular, fewer emotional places to go later in the proceedings.

The scenic design by Cameron Caley Michalak is clean and efficient, with various wall hangings suggesting the different locations. But these could benefit from a bit more specific illumination in Marcus Dana's lighting plot. Esther Haberlen's costumes are spot-on, from Susan's elegant outfits and snazzy cane to Becky's blind date dress that Max describes, not flatteringly, as a birthday cake.

The beauty of Becky Shaw is that it shows people trying to do the best they can and usually failing spectacularly in the process. If that isn't a tidy description of the human condition, it'll have to do till a better one comes along.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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