The Empathic Duo

6. February, 2012 Theater No comments

Before the opening of the Bay Area premiere of Becky Shaw, SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English gave a stirring speech about theater as a gym for compassion, for developing the muscle of empathy. The sentiment rings true, but it’s also ironic going into a comedy about people who either lack compassion for anyone outside of their chosen circle or whose empathy draws them into trouble. Whether or not you empathize with these characters, you’re such to be entertained by them in this tantalizing first local glimpse of playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s work, thanks to an excellent cast and director Amy Glazer’s sharply paced staging.

Lauren English, Lee Dolson, Liz Sklar and Brian Robert Burns in Becky Shaw. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Despite the title, the play isn’t really about Becky Shaw. She’s the catalyst, not the protagonist. The one we really follow is Suzanna, whom we first meet in mourning for her recently deceased father, her mascara tear-smeared as she comforts herself by watching grim cable reality shows.

Her friend Max is having none of it. Suzanna’s father made bad investments and her family’s nearly broke, and he needs her to pull herself together so that her mother doesn’t walk off with whatever money is left. “Negotiations are all about having the biggest dick in the room,” Max tells Suzanna—“grieve, but do it with a big dick.”

Ultimately this talk about the money isn’t terribly important to the plot, and we never gather what if anything comes of it, except that Suzanna has to live on a budget. What’s important is the relationship between her and Max. He’s a successful money manager and is helping the family make sense of its funds, but he was also raised more or less as Suzanna’s brother when his own father couldn’t take care of him after his mother’s death. That said, the rapport between Max and Suzanna gives off a distinctly non-siblingy vibe.

Brian Robert Burns’s Max is cocky and brusque to the point of rudeness, but also charismatic and believably attached to Suzanna despite being closed off emotionally otherwise. Maddeningly argumentative, he takes a utilitarian view of love, romantic or otherwise, as a byproduct of usefulness.

Similarly potty-mouthed and confrontational, Liz Sklar’s Suzanna is a whirlwind. A budding psychologist, she’s an intimidating, fast-paced, easy agitated big-city gal who’s clearly very bright.

When we see her a few months later, she’s living in Providence and married to Andrew, a former coffeeshop barista now working an office job to keep Suzanna comfortable. He’s supposedly a writer or wants to be, but doesn’t feel comfortable enough in his surroundings to write. (We’ve all heard that one before.) Likeably played by Lee Dolson in hipster glasses and a wispy beard, he’s a nice, sensitive guy who’s drawn to damaged people, and we’re told porn makes him cry. Even as newlyweds they squabble constantly, which Suzanna considers normal, but Andrew may be in a little over his head.

They’re setting Max up on a blind date with the titular Becky Shaw, a temp in Andrew’s office. Nervous and awkward, Becky shows up for the date dolled up in a pink party dress. Lauren English nicely embodies her shy jitters, but also gives skillful glimpses that she might be able to more than hold her own after all. As more and more levels of her personality are unearthed, we realize uncomfortably that in fact we have no idea what she’s capable of.

From the moment Becky enters, Max and Suzanna are cussing up a storm about family business while the two polite Rhode Islanders watch the brash New Yorkers helplessly from the sidelines. It’s immediately apparent that the people most naturally matched in temperament are not necessarily the ones who are paired off romantically.

Suzanna’s mother Susan suffers from multiple sclerosis, the effects of which here appear limited to reliance on a cane, unless her sour disposition counts. Cool and unsentimental to the point of seeming hostility, she’s a force to be reckoned with as played by Lorri Holt, cruelly blunt in a way that’s often hilariously inappropriate. Like many such misanthropes in drama, she gets some of the best lines. At times the play borders on a 21st century comedy of manners.

There are a number of characters whom we never meet but who nonetheless loom large, such as the dead father’s business associate and alleged lover, or Lester, Susan’s loser of a boy toy.

Miyuki Bierlein’s costumes add greatly to the sense of character, from Suzanna’s penchant for chic black clothing to Becky’s seeming inability to wear anything that isn’t aggressively cleavagey, even when it’s a T-shirt. With smudgy gray walls and a variety of sparse decor on the rotating wall panels, Bill English’s set transforms from spartan hotel rooms to funky or grand living rooms.

The script has some problems, most importantly its lack of an ending. The trouble with Becky Shaw is that it feels like all setup. A lot of suspense builds up about Becky, but nothing really comes of it. The play’s full of intriguing threads that never pay off. But it’s awfully sharp, not just funny but also insightful about human nature. By the end of the first act it seems pretty obvious where the story’s going to go, and when it doesn’t quite go there it’s awfully refreshing. Now the trick is for it to really go somewhere.

Jeri Lynn Cohen and Patrick Russell in Body Awareness. Photo by David Allen

The next play at SF Playhouse will be Annie Baker’s The Aliens in March, and it seems especially fortuitous that Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company is giving another Annie Baker comedy its Bay Area premiere at this very moment.

Body Awareness is also largely concerned with empathy, in no small part because one character in particular is obsessed with disproving his seeming lack of it. Everyone’s pretty sure Jared has Asperger’s syndrome. A 21-year-old who still lives with his mother and her partner, Jared only seems to have two emotional modes: condescending disdain and violent rage. To him everything is stupid and everyone’s an idiot. College also is stupid, so he works at McDonald’s and spends the rest of the time reading the Oxford English Dictionary, teaching himself the etymology of various words.

With a hunched and concave posture, his arms hanging limply in front of him, Patrick Russell’s Jared is in a constant state of disgust, as if anything anyone says is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. Deeply maladjusted, he can only be comforted by sucking on an electric toothbrush. The suggestion that he might have Asperger’s sends him into an explosive rage, name-calling and threatening, and even though he’s read up on the condition to disprove it, he constantly conflates it with being “retarded.”

Jared’s mother Joyce is a high school teacher, and her partner Phyllis is a psychology professor at a state college in Vermont. Phyllis is one of the organizers of an Eating Disorders Awareness Week events series, which they’ve rebranded Body Awareness Week to keep things positive.

The couple has a houseguest, a guest artist flown in for the event. Frank is a photographer who takes nude photos of women of all ages who volunteer to pose for him. It’s not clear whether Joyce lined up the guest artist or what her involvement is in Body Awareness Week, if any, seeing as how she doesn’t even work for the college. But in any case, she’s familiar with Frank’s photos and Phyllis isn’t. Phyllis is offended by his work sight unseen, because to her mind it’s inherently exploitive and exemplifies the male gaze, and she takes an instant dislike to Frank. Joyce likes him and thinks his pictures are beautiful, and she’s fascinated by the idea of posing for him.

Jeri Lynn Cohen makes a sympathetic and well-grounded mother and partner as Joyce, almost saintly in her patience, but she’s also very self-conscious and easily cowed by the forceful personalities around her.

Amy Resnick is terrific as Phyllis, hard-edged, self-assured and acerbic, and the more incredulous and pissed-off she gets the funnier and more touching in her distress she becomes. She’s aghast at Frank’s new-agey nonsense about experiencing visions and visitations, is threatened by Joyce’s acceptance of him, and has made up her mind that he’s a “sleazebag.”

The play marks the start of each day with Phyllis emceeing the Body Awareness events, and her effusive praise of all the guest performers gets increasingly derailed with passive-aggressive, increasingly shrill commentary directed at Frank, who doubtless isn’t even in the room.

The great thing about Howard Swain’s portrayal of Frank is that it’s hard to decide whether or not Phyllis is wrong about him. He’s very self-satisfied and has a preemptive way of putting things down, whether it’s the town or the relationship label of “partner.” He has an insinuating way of enthusing in wonderment that always sounds like a come-on. It’s very easy to believe that he’s chosen this line of work just to get women to take their clothes off for him. But at the same time, his enthusiasm is infectious, and there’s something charmingly forthright about him. Even if he is a sleazebag, he’s an easy one to like.

In fact, even when they’re being unkind to each other, everyone in the play is likeable—even Jared, who’s a complete shit to everybody most of the time. When he tries to display empathy it’s hilarious because he’s so inept at it.

It’s a well-crafted, though-provoking comedy, and director Joy Carlin gives it an awfully strong production that’s superbly cast. On the visual side it’s a bit lackluster. Kent Dorsey’s set is made up of tasteful if stodgy home trappings—a kitchen island, a dining table, an easy chair—that are either from different rooms or an especially tiny apartment.  A platform in the rear doubles as the college event stage and as the couple’s bedroom. The projections are a bit blurry, or at least they were the night I saw it, which compromises the final image.

One thing I appreciate about the play is that the myriad connections to the title are obvious but not intrusive. For all their talk about body awareness and acceptance, Phyllis and Joyce are judgmental of women who are “too makeupy,” have plastic surgery or practice the “allegedly feminist” art of burlesque. Joyce even beats herself up for doing some extra grooming when she’s thinking of posing. Although obsessed with the prospect of someday having sex, Jared finds his own body repulsive, and Joyce is self-conscious about hers as well.  For his part, Frank’s whole raison d’être is tied up in awareness of other people’s bodies and helping them reclaim them. It’s a tidier play than Becky Shaw, almost to a fault, but they’re both awfully clever comedies with a lot to say about the human condition. And yes, about empathy.

Becky Shaw
Through March 10
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco.

Body Awareness 
Through March 11
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Becky Shaw: Show #11 of 2012, attended January 28.

Body Awareness: Show #14 of 2012, attended February 2.

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