Thursday, November 1, 2012

Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo

Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Anna Crawford.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, October 25 – December 1, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 31

Strange, but oddly fascinating (and often funny, but not always), until the end.

This makes for a confusing review, I guess, but despite enjoying the show and appreciating the excellent directing and acting by Sandy Gore (the mother, Suzanna, aka Susan), Catherine Moore (the daughter, Suzanna, aka, Suzy), Rupert Reid (the adopted son/brother, Max), Matthew Zeremes (Suzy’s husband, Andrew) and Anna Lise Phillips (the manipulator and/or truth teller, Becky Shaw), I came away with mixed feelings.

Suzy’s father has died, leaving a business in financial straits and perhaps having had a long-standing gay relationship with his off-stage incompetent accountant.  Susan has had (what appeared on stage) to be a mild form of MS apparently throughout her marriage, but now has an off-stage Lester as a carer, or maybe something more.  Max has grown up to be a proper professional money manager, and tries to provide for Suzy and Susan,  despite compromising emotional relations.  Andrew is entirely kind-hearted, tries to rescue Becky from self-harm, and sets her up to meet Max. 

This is, of course, a deliberately bowdlerised summary, so that when you see the show you will not be forewarned of the details of conflict and consequent laughter.  Suffice to say that Suzy was ‘very close to’ her father; Max’s father could or would not look after him after his wife had died; Susan dominates Suzy and Max, and probably her husband too; Andrew is out of touch with his parents; and Becky has lost communication with her parents after living with a middle-class black man.  The younger generation is all 20+ to 30+ existential angst, while the older generation – that is, Susan – is full of advice.

So you can see how the one-liners and sudden moments of shock-and-awe might generate laughter.  They certainly do, and did when I saw it in company with an audience mostly of my (now ancient, or at least as recently defined, elderly) generation.  Rousing applause, even whistles, at curtain call, enlivened the Ensemble no end.

But something was not quite right.  As I thought things through, I realised I had issues with the script.

The first problem was all these dead or no-longer-talking-to-their-adult-children fathers.  The psychological theory behind the play seemed too Oedipussian, too old fashioned Freudian for a 21st Century comedy.  Or does this just mean that this play, premiered at the 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays, represents Americans as not yet so over Freud as the rest of us.  And maybe that’s just funny in itself.

Then I remembered I had reviewed another recent American play, Sex with Strangers by Laura Easson (October 3, 2012) and that they both have the same – dramatically speaking – ending.  I had thought that Easson’s leaving her protagonist standing, frozen, in the final spotlight and blackout, was a cop-out.  The author refused to finish the play, and the lack of tension at that final point took attention away from strong drama earlier in the play.

Now Gina Gionfriddo has done the same.  Andrew and Suzy say they will drive Becky away, leaving Susan and Max to have their last conflict ‘resolution’.  Becky has left or been thrown out of the car, and returns to wait for the early-morning train, in company with Max.  Susan imperiously leaves them to it.   Max and Becky stand facing each other at some distance – in every sense – and freeze.  The light is held on them briefly, and blackout.

Just as in Sex with Strangers, Becky Shaw is left unfinished.  I must say the questions left in our minds like, Does she infuriate him enough to make him kill her? or Do they make furious love? or about a dozen other questions I can think of, do lend this play a bit more gutsy feeling at the end compared with Sex with Strangers.

But maybe what’s going on here is that modern Americans are so unsure of their future that their playwrights can tell their stories only up to a certain point, and then just have to stop, freeze in the spotlight, and fade to blackout.  Is this the real angst behind the one-liner quips and the flashing retorts, however funny they seem at the time?

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