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Theater review: 'Becky Shaw' at South Coast Repertory

November 1, 2010 |  5:00 pm

It’s hardly a match made on eHarmony: He’s a cynic and a bully; she’s a manipulative gold digger. But the twisted romance of Max and Becky makes for plenty of sparks in “Becky Shaw,” Gina Gionfriddo’s sharp-sighted if scattered comedy now at South Coast Repertory.

Reeling after her beloved father’s death, spoiled Suzanna (Tessa Auberjonois) leans as always on Max (Brian Avers), her adopted brother and money manager for their mother (Barbara Tarbuck). But after Max gives Suzanna marching orders — lose the grief and get a life — they find themselves consummating an attraction years in the making.

Eight months later, Suzanna has married beta male and budding novelist Andrew (Graham Michael Hamilton), who resents Max’s hold over his suggestible wife. A sucker for women in peril, Andrew arranges a blind date between Max and a temp at his office, the pretty but impoverished Becky (Angela Goethals). When their date goes wildly wrong, Becky deftly sets in motion a series of events that will force them all to confront who they really are, not who they wish to be. 

Gionfriddo, whose television work includes “Law & Order” and “Boardwalk Empire,” delivers plenty of laughs and creates a delicious stage creature in misanthropist Max. Sure, he’s a type — so is Gregory House — but it’s hard to tire of his withering comebacks to the hand-wringing morality espoused by lesser mortals (i.e., everyone else): “Prostitution, marriage … Same thing," Max observes. "It’s two people coming together because each has something the other wants.” 

Max wants nothing to do with desperate Becky, but she has other ideas. Gionfriddo slowly ratchets up the stakes, and male audience members will cringe in horror at a blissfully evil scene in which a dismissive Max suddenly realizes stalker Becky has him trapped. Somewhere, a metaphorical bunny boils.

At her best, Gionfriddo exposes how money, class and sex act as Darwinian cues in the great game of hooking up. “Becky Shaw” isn’t the most elegantly constructed romantic comedy, but its suspicion of sentiment buoys its weaker sections. (The playwright could rethink her long opening scene and lose 10 minutes of repetitious talk about Suzanna’s dead dad.)

Director Pam MacKinnon establishes a strong rhythm, punctuating the plot turns with the clarity of a thriller. Avers lands much of Max’s wit and plays nicely with Auberjonois, whose natural vivacity doesn’t make her as vulnerable as the play asks Suzanna to be. Goethals, required to be ruthless and helpless, does her wide-eyed best, but Becky’s character, or lack thereof, is one of the story’s less convincing aspects. 

That intermittent credibility is somehow echoed by Daniel Ostling’s revolving set, which floats on the Segerstrom proscenium like a sitcom stage, emphasizing the artificiality of this world. Yes, “Becky Shaw” is an urban fable of sorts, a freewheeling homage to Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” but it requires emotional grounding even in its more implausible moments.

The hand of the playwright, while always adept, can make itself felt in intrusive ways — as if Gionfriddo, for all of her irreverence, resists letting her characters make their own choices. Despite the play’s title, the author ultimately seems more interested in Max and Suzanna’s quasi-incestuous relationship than what drives a social climber like Becky.

The result is a briskly entertaining comedy that suppresses a stronger, sadder tale of a man’s discovery that the solitude he celebrates is actually a response to an impossible love. Gionfriddo has (almost) written a compelling portrait of a man finding his humanity by getting dumped, then played. Becky would approve.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Becky Shaw,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 21. $28-$66. (714) 708-5555 or Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Angela Goethals, Graham Michael Hamilton, center, and Brian Avers in "Becky Shaw." Credit: Scott Brinegar.