Chicago Theatre Review
Predators Who Eat Their Young
Becky Shaw – Windy City Playhouse
Originating at the prestigious Humana Festival, and later transferring to Off-Broadway, Gina Gionfriddo’s scathing look at five pretty unpleasant people, all related to each other in some way, is an uncomfortable, yet humorous look at who we’ve become today. A finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Ms. Gionfriddo is an American playwright best known for her plays “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (recently presented by the Goodman Theatre), as well as her Obie Award-winning “After Ashley.” She’s also written for television, including “Law and Order.”
The Windy City Playhouse’s production, superbly directed with vim, vigor and a dash of vitriol by Scott Weinstein, is a modern day comedy of manners—albeit bad manners. This is essentially who many of us have become in the last few years, particularly as modeled by the behavior of our current Washington administration. Under Weinstein’s guidance, five talented actors writhe, rant and rail with each other demonstrating how too many individuals have turned into raging, rude and self-entitled spoiled adults. Having an ounce of consideration for the other person seems to be an archaic, old-fashioned way of living in today’s world, as this playwright illustrates. Everyone’s out for himself, or so it seems. Luckily there are a few out there, like the gently empathetic Andrew, in this play, who still can find it in themselves to help their fellow man.
Like a case of exploding container of Roman candles, Mr. Weinstein’s production springs open with a bang and never extinguishes its bluster until the final curtain. As funny as it is shocking, this is a somewhat uncomfortable play to watch, which is a tribute to both the playwright and this director. The play begins in a three-star New York hotel room following the death of Susan’s husband and her daughter Suzanna’s father. Adopted brother Max and has also become the family’s money manager and financial advisor, which he’s extended into being the family counselor for all seasons. Flash ahead eight months later and Suzanna has married Andrew a kind, young man with a steady nine-to-five job, but who dreams of becoming an artist. Andrew has befriended a sad, luckless young temp in his office named Becky Shaw. He and Suzanna have decided to set up the emotionally detached Max and the quirky Becky on a blind date, a setup that goes from bad to worse. In the scenes that follow we learn more and more about each of these characters, as well as every the sordid detail of their date. The play ends on an uncertain, open note, with the audience getting to decide where these relationships may be headed.
But do not be misled. This is not a happy comedy where you’ll forget your cares and leave the theatre feeling great about life. It’s a troubling, turbulent play that’ll put a knot in your stomach and haunt you on your drive home. It’s impossible not to constantly think about these characters, and, from this moment on, you’ll find yourself running into their prototypes everywhere you go. Each of the actors deliver in spades and effectively chew up the scenery, which is an accomplishment since there’s quite a bit of it. The play is set all over the theatre, nicely utilizing every nook and cranny of this venue. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenic design is very impressive, creating at least six different stylish locations and nicely melding with the magic of Brandon Wardell’s moody lighting and Eric Backus’ powerful original music and sound design.
Michael Doonan and Amy Rubenstein are sensational as Max Garrett and Suzanna Slater. Bursting with energy and drive, they go at each other like a pair of rabid dogs, sometimes in heat, often just filled with anger. As Becky Shaw, Carley Cornelius is a study in restrained intensity. She’s a mistress of the slow burn and knows how to hit all the right notes in order to evoke sympathy. But after several scenes the audience’s feelings for this character begin to shift as we start to see the true Becky Shaw under her “poor me” facade. As Andrew Porter, the single character audiences will find likable and relatable, Michael Pogue is excellent. He’s the very picture of patience and Christian charity in this play. Pogue creates a demeanor of genuine care and concern for every other character, but he soon learns not to judge a book by its cover. In many ways, Andrew is the central character around whom this tainted universe revolves. Suzanne Petri’s feisty, ailing mother, Susan Slater, is the kind of manipulating adult who likes putting salt in the fresh wounds of her family and, if there aren’t any, enjoys making small cuts in their the psyches, so better to begin the process. She is the black widow, a cougar oblivious to her financial situation while enjoying the company of younger men. Physically and vocally she kind of brings to mind Kathleen Turner, at her best.
In this superb season opener for Windy City Playhouse we are treated to a play that will leave audiences breathless. Gina Gionfriddo’s comic drama takes contemporary values and turns them upside down. All of the characters are psychologically flawed in some way, but as each scene unfolds, the moral perspective of the piece begins to shift. Max, the financial whiz-kid, begins as a brash, bombastic young man, who masks his fear of emotional intimacy with sharp wit. Then he meets Becky, a needy, neurotic mess who’s learned how to use her misfortunes to prey upon others. Ultimately, and with great subtlety, the two trade places, each turning into someone else. But these character shifts come with biting humor and a price. We’re not witnessing a caterpillar become a butterfly; it’s more like watching the mating ritual of two predators who would probably eat their own young.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 1-November 12 by the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-891-8985 or by going to www.WindyCityPlayhouse.com/Becky-Shaw.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.