There is a first time for everything, and this was my first time seeing a show at Windy City Playhouse. I must say I am thoroughly impressed. Entering this theatre is like walking into a hotel: to one side is an elaborate bar (which serves drinks in actual glassware!) and to the other a comfortable lounge area complete with fireplace. Directly in front of me, a tiny concierge stand serves as a box office. And inside the theatre the comfort continues: the seats are beautiful leather swivel chairs, and they are arranged cabaret style with little tables or a drink rail. The place is so amazing you might want to spend time there even without a play to see.
But the fact of the matter is that there is a play to see: Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw,” a play full of truly unlikable characters having a remarkably bad time. As I sipped coffee in the lobby, someone described the play as being about a first date that goes horribly wrong, and that is definitely true. It’s also about the emptiness of some people’s emotions and the too-sincere approach that others have. It’s about parents and how they let their children down. It’s about the confusion between what the heart wants and what the brain knows it needs. And it’s about how difficult it really is to tell what is going on in someone else’s mind.]
That one play about mostly unlikable people can be about so many things (and more) is remarkable, and that it all works is even more so. Director Scott Weinstein has utilized the oddly immersive spaces of the theatre brilliantly, moving the scenes back and forth from one stage to another while the audience swivels its attention to watch. His only miscue is in the long opening scene taking place in a hotel room: its space limitations cause some very stiff and unnatural blocking. Otherwise, the natural tension in the rest of the scenes provides enough raw energy to animate even the most static moments.
And let’s face it: dating situations are rife with tension, and first dates are doubly so. In this case, arrogantly upper class Max (superbly portrayed by Michael Doonan, so sincere in his self-aggrandizing, narcissistic manner, so smugly refusing any responsibility for the travails of those worse off than himself that he should be running for Congress) is being set up on a date with the title character, Becky Shaw (Carly Cornelius).
Cornelius’ performance all by itself might be worth the price of admission. At first bewilderingly timid and seemingly shy, she quickly establishes that there is more going on than meets the eye with some cagey answers to Max’s comments, setting up the possibility that, though she is admittedly penniless and has no family—thus bereft of any class standing whatsoever and precisely what Max doesn’t see as his “equal”—they will actually go out together. What happens then is even more of a mind-blow than the crazy-clever Becky could conceive of, and it leads to a second act full of emotional breakdowns and confrontations and realizations. Through it all, Cornelius quivers, cries, swaggers, seduces, dreams, reveals emotional stories about past trauma with as calculated a demeanor as possible, and in general does everything she can to make it impossible for the audience to know just what to make of this character.
Max and Becky are not, of course, the only characters in this play, and the other actors also do an excellent job of portraying various aspects of the human heart. Amy Rubenstein plays Suzanna, Max’s sort-of best friend and sort-of adopted sibling with most definitely confused feelings toward him. There may be nothing really redeeming about Max, but the heart doesn’t always want what is good for it, and Rubenstein shows us Suzanna’s near-constant struggle as a kind of an ongoing personal clinical experience. (Suzanna is a PhD Psychology student.) She may not understand all of this, but she is trying.
She is married to The Most Sincere Man On Earth, Andrew Porter (played by Michael Pogue as an overgrown college student trying to be an adult in a new relationship). Andrew is the only absolutely “good” character in the play, and even he gets tempted. Still, he is Max’s total opposite: he cares so deeply about others he almost forgets to care about himself, only realizing belatedly that he has a marriage to protect.
The fifth wheel here is Susan, Suzanna’s mother who actually shares her name, played with great aristocratic aplomb by Suzanne Petri. (Yes, that is a lot of Suzannes, thank you very much.) For a great deal of time, she seems to be lying to herself about aspects of her late husband’s character, but there are depths to this woman we only see later on. Susan sees things. She may be the one character who truly does. And she ingratiates herself to us with a single early line reading describing the hired worker she has fallen for, a man her daughter and “son” loathe: “He’s my lover,” she practically purrs, and there is absolutely no doubt.
Ultimately, perhaps Becky Shaw, a story about a date gone wrong that leads to a relationship with a woman who may be damaged or may be conning them all, reveals itself to be a story about truth and lies. “Sometimes lying is the most humane thing you can do,” we are told, and when we examine this tale in which every character lies at some point or another, some a lot, the point becomes one worth pondering. It is echoed by a statement by Susan late in the play: truly knowing someone is a prescription for misery. Maybe the only thing that is at last sacred in life are the truths that we preserve by lies.
Becky Shaw is playing through November 12 at Windy City Playhouse. Tickets ($15-55) are available at windycityplayhouse.com