Does this sound too cynical? “Love is the happy by-product of use,” says one of the characters in Gina Gionfriddo’s dark, delightfully tart “Becky Shaw.”
The play — a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist by D.C. native Gionfriddo, getting its strangely belated area debut at the Round House Theatre — is full of bright quips and epigrams fired off by damaged characters with lacerating tongues. You laugh a lot during “Becky Shaw,” and often in cahoots with characters whose hearts seem to be made of stone.
It’s the kind of tantalizing play that can leave you debating about its emotional center long after the action is over. Among the candidates for most sympathetic figure are Suzanna, the borderline suicidal 35-year-old grieving for her father, and her new 31-year-old husband Andrew, a soft-spoken, super-empathetic soul who practically flinches when the hard-shelled Suzanna berates him because it’s how families talked as she grew up.
But in Patricia McGregor’s patient, eventually gripping production, there’s no doubt about the play’s pleasure-giving center. It’s Max, the brusque money manager who was adopted by Suzanna’s family at an early age, played with steely sarcasm by Will Gartshore.
The way Max sees things, he is order in a world of mess. The play opens with Max trying to sort out the money troubles of his adoptive family, now that Suzanna’s father has died, and secrets of mismanagement (fiscal and personal) begin tumbling forth. Max doesn’t believe Suzanna and her mother, Susan, need compassion. They need discipline, and the zingers that Gionfriddo pens for Max as he grapples with his helpless adoptive family are harsh but hilarious.
Enter Becky Shaw, a cute but penniless work friend of Andrew’s who seems to bring helplessness and neediness to new heights. In Michelle Six’s neatly mysterious performance, it’s hard to gauge whether Becky is dim or dangerous — or both — as she and Max set out on a date that will have nasty repercussions.
“Becky Shaw” has been compared to Victorian novels about class (namely “Vanity Fair” and its upward-gazing opportunist, Becky Sharp) and to the social comedies of George Bernard Shaw. That’s accurate: The adder-like banter about moral responses to everything from the Iraq War (briefly) and poverty (strikingly) makes this a modern comedy of manners, with all the lurking scandal and sexual intrigue that implies.
Daniel Conway’s turntable set spins from bedrooms to coffee shops to sitting rooms; like the jazzy between-scenes music from composer/sound designer Eric Shimelonis, the rotating design gets more complex as the relationships get sticky. The performances in this sleek environment are all cleanly etched: Rex Daugherty’s tender Andrew is so exactly opposite of Gartshore’s flinty Max that broad punch lines consistently pay off.
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is bravely abrasive as Suzanna, and she confidently goes toe-to-toe with Gartshore during encounters that veer from sweet to creepy. As Susan, Brigid Cleary is ravishingly good, especially in a late scene so filled with twisted wisdom it sounds like something out of Oscar Wilde.
Gionfriddo writes a lot for TV, from the “Law and Order” franchise to the Netflix political drama “House of Cards.” But she writes plays, too. Her “Rapture, Blister, Burn” was enthusiastically received off-Broadway last year and was a Pulitzer finalist this spring. Perhaps it won’t take half a decade for D.C. theater to catch up to that.
by Gina Gionfriddo. Costumes, Katherine O’Neill; lights, Jedidiah Roe. About two hours and 20 minutes. Through June 23 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.