Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: The moral ground is ever-shifting in Threshold Rep's 'Becky Shaw'

Ice queens and kings

Posted by Maura Hogan on Mon, Sep 5, 2016 at 8:57 AM

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My chilliest single days were spent in New York City during the pre-crash 2000s, when Wall Street riches at times begat a breed of 30-something male who could be boastfully unapologetic in his transactional approach to courtship. I recall, for instance, one viral email that circulated around the city, rating women, as if they were a commodity, on looks, age, pedigree, etc., and gamely advising aspiring trophy wives who fell short of trader-sanctioned marriage criteria to cut their losses and stop kidding themselves. Now, before the moneymakers among us cry foul: I’m not suggesting that those in the finance world are singular in this take-no-prisoners method of coupling. However, I might entertain the notion that they are particularly effective at managing to pull it off with impunity.

When it comes to dramatic works mining the mean, cold heart of some members of the male species, the plays of Neil LaBute immediately savage the mind. Playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, which is now on offer at Threshold Repertory Theatre, serves up a similarly sangfroid study of sexual politics, though it casts culpability on both genders. Thankfully, the play does so with such deceptive affability and comic agility that it may take a few moments to register the sting of its psychic slap.

From the start of the play, the definition of family is blurred in ways that are meant to both engage and put off. Matriarch Susan Slater has summoned her daughter Suzanna and financial adviser, Max Garrett, to sort out the affairs of her recently departed husband. Max, however, is far more to the family than your average New York City number cruncher. The Slaters essentially adopted him as a 10-year-old orphan.

However, even in the face of such selfless kindness, Max has little inclination to either truly respect his role as de facto family member, or to pay it forward. For starters, he crosses lines no decent blood brother would cross. What’s more, he is stone cold uncaring to most anyone other than a chosen few. We discover this unsavory morsel of Max’s character early on, when Suzanna takes umbrage with her mother bringing a new, young suitor to the family estate meeting. “Your father’s dead,” Max tosses off. “His feelings don’t matter.”

What Max does embrace are his own clearly defined codes and lines of obligation. Suzanna, his would-be sister, falls firmly inside that line of duty. A woman by the name of Becky Shaw is decidedly on the outs. Becky comes to Max by way of Suzanna and her new husband Andrew, an aspiring writer and overall bleeding heart. They have induced Max to visit them in Providence, R.I., as part of a double date with the two of them and Becky, Andrew’s office mate. And, while Max may have signed off on the setup, that complicity does not, in his opinion, hold him to any further behavioral contract.

The date with Becky Shaw gets off to an awkward start when she shows up overdressed, a gesture Max reads as a sign of desperation. It devolves from there, in a squirm-worthy volley of digs and deflections, but the two set off on a date nonetheless.

However, when Becky and Max’s evening becomes far more sinister in its complications, it brings to the forefront the moral and ethical assumptions held by each of the characters. Between and amongst the couples, the dynamics fly around brisk and venal. Max assesses that he and Becky are not equals, but when it comes to power plays, she has a few choice leverage points. And, while Suzanna enjoys nursing her self image as a guileless waif in need of protection, she offers ample proof that she will not be outdone. A Gen X No Exit, Becky even makes mention of the prison that is life.

Just as the characters are equally matched, so are the actors in this adept ensemble, who juggle this unblinking comedy’s fierce jabs and well-aimed jests with equal finesse. Josh Wilhoit’s Max is icily authentic in his matter-of-fact self-possession and utter absence of pathos. As Suzanna, Tara Denton Holwegner exudes a frank warmth and exhibits a seemingly effortless verbal facility with the searing, smart script. Charley Smith brilliantly balances Becky’s affecting self-deprecation and aggressive underpinnings. Darryl LaPlante’s Andrew is stridently likable, even as his savior complex implodes on him. And, in a show-stopping coup de grace, Samille Basler portrays the elder Susan Slater with gorgeous, imperious ease.

The performances both stand apart and come together successfully in this riveting mix of mirth and menace. I for one would be up for turning up the menace even more —and perhaps upping the action on stage as counterpoint to this very verbal play. Nods are also in order for a sly set that slides from hotel room to Providence apartment in a few deft moves, thanks to the vision of recently departed Mike Kordek, Threshold Rep's technical director.

All in all, Threshold has delivered a Becky Shaw that is as bracingly cold as it is convivial and comic. With a solid ensemble and directorial clarity, the sharp edge of its wit cuts with such precision that you may not realize you’re bleeding out. Here’s to an evening of theater with plenty of Max — and to a life with far less of him. 

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