The show begins before the lights even go up. As you take your seat in the Art Square Theatre before A Public Fit Theatre Company’s smart, sleek presentation of Gina Gionfriddo’s 2008 dramedy “Becky Shaw,” you’ll notice a large bed on the set. Then you’ll notice there’s a person lying solemnly in that bed watching an unseen television, and that person is the grieving Suzanna (Rozanne Sher), the woman around whom the story revolves. Given the title of this peculiar play you might think the main character is Becky Shaw, but that isn’t the case. The quirky Becky (Kelli Andino) arrives later to quietly stir the pot.
Suzanna’s adopted brother and money-manager Max (Russell Jeff Feher) storms into her motel room admonishing her to stop wallowing, get up and get dressed. They’re meeting with their sardonic mother Susan (Charlene Sher) to discuss their recently deceased father’s sparse estate, and the necessity of cutting back their upper-class spending. Susan and Max share an acid-tongue. “No good deed goes unpunished,” she tells him, matter-of-factly. “You were a good deed.”
Max has carefully constructed a wall of protection around himself, made from the bricks of bitterness and hurt. He and Suzanna share a bond forged from childhood heartache, one that goes deeper than familial love. But while Suzanna yearns for empathy and nurturing, Max is cynical. “Love is a happy by-product of use,” he explains.
The idealistic Suzanna impulsively marries sensitive writer Andrew (Mike Rasmussen), and they set the reluctant Max up on a blind date with Andrew’s delicate co-worker Becky. “Wow, you look like a birthday cake,” Max snarls as Becky stands coquettishly yet ominously in the doorway wearing a peachy, thrift-store dress, looking more Easter parfait than angel food cake.
Gionfriddo was inspired by William Thackeray’s 19th century satirical novel “Vanity Fair” and his penniless, social-climbing heroine Becky Sharp while writing “Becky Shaw.” The parallels are there and the playwright’s ideas about how family, class, and the pains of childhood shape us into the jaded adults we become are serious issues wrapped up in a neat package of dry, caustic wit.
Director Ann Marie Pereth thoughtfully keeps things natural with the earthy cast maintaining an in-the-moment conversational style so that it feels like they are uttering each word for the first time. Though the script meanders especially at the beginning, the pace is tidy and relaxed with a nice build and perfect arc to each scene. The company has created an idiosyncratic microcosm all their own.
Feher as Max is superb. In his slick, expensive suit he looks the epitome of a charismatic, yuppie finance guy and exerts his superiority and wicked honesty with a vengeance. Misogynistic and cruel, the perfectly tempered venom that rolls off his tongue is shocking. And hilarious. So no matter how we try, we can’t hate him. It doesn’t hurt that he gives us glimpses of the sad little boy within now and then.
As Becky, Andino is a charming, tremulous menace. She seems innocuous at first with her clumsy flirtations and a sadness that pulls at our heart strings. But then she plucks them out, one by one. We see the shifty eyes and quivering lips under the seductive, girlish smile and crocodile tears as she reveals Becky’s ever-darkening, conniving nuance in each measured layer.
Rasmussen as Andrew is the lovable, cuddly one with his laid-back comic delivery and devil-may-care elan. He’s got the free-spirited, non-conformist, slacker attitude down. He is drawn to women in distress, and his empathy is palpable. When Suzanne says that pornography makes him cry, we can believe it.
As Suzanna, Rozanne Sher is the most normal and least manipulative of the bunch. She is admirably and perfectly the straight woman to everyone else’s darts and arrows, and crafts a sweet, caring individual by minimizing the whininess of the character as written on the page. With her real-life mom the funny Charlene Sher hitting all the right notes as the matriarch Susan, the dynamics of their mother-daughter relationship comes to life. We see the critical mother who jabs at the child who was never good enough, and the sad daughter who still seeks approval from her mom.
The technical effects are as good as the cast. The play takes place on the east coast in several locations, and Eric A. Koger’s clever set has different, intricate flats connected together to indicate each spot. A bubblegum pink-wall covered in kitsch is the home of Becky, and a bookcase that of Suzanna. Set changes are smooth and incorporate the actors as they transition to different scenes, and include the inventive lights of Josh Wroblewski to help set place and character. Mariya Radeva-Nedyalkova’s costumes are vintage chic and grungy flannel, and Steven Zeller’s sound design is evocative and moody.
“Becky Shaw” is unique and eccentric and features a terrifically funny cast.
Pictured: Mike Rasmussen, Kelli Andino, Rozanne Sher and Russell Jeff Feher in BECKY SHAW. Photo by Shawn Donley