By Roger Bloom | NB Indy
“Becky Shaw” at South Coast Repertory is as challenging and rewarding a theater experience as we’ve seen in a while.
It’s like watching a fireworks show in an earthquake, being shaken about as skyrockets careen around you in wholly unplanned directions.
It is a play that requires you to think, but makes that doubly hard by also keeping you laughing.
In going from George Bernard Shaw (the last play on the Segerstrom Stage was “Misalliance”) to “Becky Shaw,” SCR has doubled down not only on Shaws but also on serio-comic takes on love and relationships. But they’ve gone from the intellectual drawing room of 1910 to the raw shoutfest of 2010, from the polite to the uproariously profane.
The issues, however, remain the same. What is love and how do you find it? Who makes a good match? And what is the point of it all, anyway?
The set up: Max and Suzanna are brother and sister, but he was adopted when they were adolescents and the relationship is somewhat more than sibling. Their father is recently deceased, the estate is a mess, and their mother who has MS and requires care has taken up with a younger man of questionable character.
Max is the type of person who dominates the room through sardonic wit and volume, and the family communicates, or fails to communicate, mostly via sarcastic barbs.
The depressed Suzanna goes off on a ski trip and comes back with a husband – a writer who would rather work in a coffeehouse than a higher-paying desk job – who drives Max up the wall.
Into this dysfunctional powderkeg comes Becky Shaw, as a blind date for Max. On first impression a socially awkward naïf, we get at first glimpses and then good hard looks at a person as lost and desperate as any of the others and if anything more shrewd and calculating.
This all sounds rather dark and depressing, but in the hands of writer Gina Gionfriddo and the actors here assembled, it is both hilarious and fascinating, as the relationships shift first this way, then that, amid revelations and recriminations. The dialogue crackles – I haven’t laughed this much in a long time.
The acting is top notch. Brian Avery as Max and Tessa Auberjonois as Suzanne inhabit their roles and have very good chemistry. Angela Goethals as Becky is pitch perfect, especially in those moments when Becky drops the mask. Graham Michael Hamilton as Andrew, Suzanne’s husband, and Barbary Tarbuck as Susan, the matriarch, are also right on the mark and add dimension.
Director Pam MacKinnon has done a commendable job of making difficult material accessible and appealing. Especially noteworthy is her deft handling of the tricky ending.