Becky Shaw, a regional premiere now at SF Playhouse, is like a two-hour greatest hits album ... for a soap opera.
Have a favorite cliché of the genre? You'll probably find it somewhere in Gina Gionfriddo's careening script. There's a well-to-do family that, upon the death of its patriarch, discovers it has no savings left, and that dear old dad might have been bisexual. There's an orphan — well, a half-orphan — who ignites an incestuous — well, quasi-incestuous — relationship with his adopted sister. There's a crippling disease, a suicide attempt, some blackmail and mutilation, even a holdup, all while the cleavage is bared (even — or especially — at work), the mascara runs, and the "fuck you, mom!"s fly.
Gionfriddo does not shy away from her characters' more repellent qualities. Max (Brian Robert Burns) asks women if they're on their periods when they're grumpy, describes listening to others as "pretty fucking womanly," and dumps all his girlfriends after three months in the vain hope that Suzanna (Liz Sklar), his sort-of sister, will reciprocate.
And she's almost as bad. A privileged white girl with daddy issues, class issues, and a total inability to make decisions, she whines her way through most of the play, pausing only to utter gems like, "It's like shoving your face in the toilet after you've shit in it: You can do it, but it's not necessary." Often, she curses her mother, Susan (the venerable Lorri Holt), a Virginia dowager with a venomous leer and a tongue to match. When Susan tells her daughter, "We knew you could never take care of yourself," it's as offhand as a remark about the weather.
But it's not just the usual suspects who make your skin prickle. In Gionfriddo's rendering, even the more pitiable types vex. Andrew (Lee Dolson), Suzanna's husband, seems refreshingly composed and compassionate — that is, until it's revealed that he has a thing for fixing broken women and then dumping them when they get healthy. Becky Shaw (Lauren English) also initially seems too sweet and shy for this brutish play, or at least to be set up on a blind date with the bullying Max. But so readily does she attract misfortune and then dive into her emotional downward spirals that, paradoxically, she comes to wield more power than any other character in the play. Because she responds only to the dictates of her own self-flagellating imagination, she can defeat the other characters by flying in the face of the few social norms to which they adhere. Feel compunction about showing up at the house of the mother of the woman whose husband you're preoccupying with your depressing problems? Not Becky Shaw!
If all this sounds unpleasant, at least the effective comic performances, directed by Amy Glazer, give us tacit permission to indulge our schadenfreude. Burns is particularly apt as Max. He gives Max's struggle with his feelings for Suzanna just the right pitch: perfectly contained — almost. And when he savors a moment before bullying, he makes palpable the glee of Max's anticipation. Bizarrely, his joy is almost tender.
And when these characters lack three full dimensions — that is to say, some positive qualities — there is Miyuki Bierlien's rich and precise costume design to help fill in the gaps. Attiring Suzanna in an array of understated ensembles, each demanding separate chic (and expensive) pieces, Bierlein shows how Suzanna really does still live in a world in which she's her father's princess. This perfectly contrasts with Becky's too-bright, too-sexy, too-fancy dresses, which convey a desperate woman who believes her looks are her one last shot, as well as with Andrew's plaid shirt and ill-fitting blazer, which cleverly suggest a man who's been forced to fit into a life that's not his style.
For all its virtues, however, this production doesn't quite know where it's going or what it's about. Gionfriddo has said that she's not the kind of writer who centers a play around a single protagonist. If that means she instead just makes all of them dreadfully unpleasant, her script, with its hairpin plot twists and turns, seems designed to prevent us from caring — which could be fine, until the unearned sentimental ending suddenly asks us to do so. False moves like that fare better on daytime.