Actors Bridge puts the 'fun' in dysfunction with the Nashville premiere of Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw 

Family Circus

Family Circus

Playwright Gina Gionfriddo has contributed many scripts to the Law & Order franchise, but her play Becky Shaw is no crime drama. It's a family story of sorts, with strange turns and twisted inner workings. Though there are certain elements that defy logic, Gionfriddo's skillful piece provides enough action to hold our attention throughout. The author has a gift for crackling dialogue, and her characters project a mix of mystery and personal confusion that keeps the story rolling. Under the deft direction of Bill Feehely, Actors Bridge Ensemble's production of the Music City premiere scores high marks for intensity and execution.

The main character, Susanna, is married to Andrew, a barista and aspiring author. Still reeling from her father's death, she maintains a very close relationship with Max, a financial adviser who is no relation but was raised as her brother and is trying to put the family on sound fiscal footing. For reasons that are not altogether clear, Susanna and Andrew set Max up with a curious yet attractive young lady named Becky Shaw. Max and Becky's date is scuttled when they are mugged, then life gets even messier after they sleep together and Becky emerges as a potentially very dangerous woman of the Fatal Attraction variety.

Meanwhile, it's revealed that the hyper Susanna and the porn-loving Max are more than mere friendly virtual siblings, and the latter makes no bones about his contempt for Andrew (whom he refers to as "indie-rock writer-boy"). Into this mix is introduced Susanna's mother, Susan, an older woman combating MS, happily ensconced in a relationship with the unseen (and dubious) Lester, and eager to have Max resolve the family's impending monetary crisis.

On the surface, it may sound like soap opera — as Andrew dubs it, "epic Faulknerian chaos" — but playwright Gionfriddo never falls into that trap. Emotional unavailability and the vagaries of contemporary marriage and love are important stops along this involving journey, which Gionfriddo peppers with revealing literary references (Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf), sly commentary on ringtones, and an inside zinger or two about Brown University.

It's a little unclear whether Gionfriddo's self-consciously witty characters could ever be real people that you or I actually know. We never get time to ruminate about that in the heat of battle, though, with director Feehely's talented cast applying the pressure throughout.

Evelyn O'Neal Brush adds to her impressive growing résumé as leading-lady Susanna, a difficult role requiring a great deal of nuance. She tempers her potentially annoying histrionics with confident craft and somehow pulls it off — an ultimately unlikable character to whom we must be loyal.

As the quirky, self-righteous Andrew, Eric Pasto-Crosby delivers an offbeat performance that is one of his finest. As Becky, Jennifer Richmond offers us welcome subtlety in the play's linchpin (and weirdest) role. Debbie Kraski is rock-solid as mother Susan, providing the voice of experience and moderation in the face of all the younger players' relational complications and overwrought angst.

All of the players will be familiar to local theatergoers save for newcomer Nathaniel McIntyre, an Equity actor with an aggressive attitude and strong physical presence. Except when he's garnering a bitter laugh or two, he's fairly overbearing — borderline detestable, in fact — as Max. That seems about right, and he's just the man for the job.

Summer theatrical fare doesn't always have to be light comedies or musicals, and Becky Shaw proves that drama with darkly comic undertones can be just as entertaining.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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