It turns out that the eponymous heroine of Gina Gionfriddo’s Off-Broadway play Becky Shaw is not a slip of the tongue; Gionfriddo was reading about Thackeray’s orphaned, impoverished, go-getting Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair when the idea took hold.
The result is an abrasively funny, brutal comedy of love, conspiracy and misunderstanding in New York, Rhode Island and Boston, as the gawky, no-mates Becky is set up as a blind date for Suzanna’s step-brother, the cold-blooded, cynical Max, and then comforted, after a mugging and suicide attempt, by Suzanna’s wannabe writer husband Andrew.
Suzanna is a trainee psychotherapist in a family blighted by financial misfortune: her bisexual father’s dead, and Max – whose own father was a failure and who was, in effect, “sold” into Susan’s family — is trying to sort things out. “Things” include his buried feelings for Suzanna.
But there’s an even bigger stumbling block in the shape of Suzanna’s widowed but newly romantically entangled mother, Susan. This formidable Southern wiseacre, stricken with multiple sclerosis, is played magnificently, Bea Arthur-style, by Haydn Gwynne, with a slap-down, elegant haughtiness, delivering the hard-won opinion that there should always be pockets of privacy in any relationship.
The play, hilarious and heart-felt, keeps you guessing. And it’s very well directed by Peter DuBois, who’s brought his leading actor, David Wilson Barnes as Max, from the American production of 2008. Wilson Barnes is outstanding, a slightly less dynamic version of Kevin Spacey (whom he also physically resembles): dry, callous, snappy, nasty and cruel.
Jonathan Fensom’s handsome revolving design (beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell creates a series of superb realistic settings – the changes are oiled by John Leonard’s punchy soundtrack (Sonny and Cher, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers) – and the cast pick their way expertly through a minefield of barbs, put-downs and recriminations.
Daisy Haggard is inspired casting as Becky, kooky and off-beat, with a tragic sense of desperate self-dramatisation, and radiant Anna Madeley as Suzanna and assured newcomer Vincent Montuel as Andrew are equally convincing in roles that are so American as to be positively foreign.