They are the most ominous steps this side of a horror flick.
Becky Shaw, a highly intelligent 35-year-old desperate for companionship, walks toward her quarry in Gina Gionfriddo’s play that is named for her. She takes one slow, deliberate step, then stops. We, the audience, breathe. She moves again, regulating our breath and that of her intended partner. He stays frozen, paralyzed with fear like a poor insect about to be eaten by a spider.
Maybe that’s not the most auspicious start of a relationship. Or maybe love shouldn’t be thought of like consumption.
Gionfriddo’s play, which opened Friday in Ellen Fenster’s taut production at Gremlin Theatre, posits some uncomfortable questions on the bodies of five unlikable characters. Like, is what we call love just a need, like hunger, that can be met in a similar transactional way? Or is love really the stuff of ethereal poetry? In a world of casual hookups and Tinder dates, can a man just use a woman and discard her like a napkin, with no obligation?
Becky Shaw (catbird eater Chelsie Newhard) says nah.
An anti-romantic comedy, “Becky” premiered at Louisville’s Humana Festival in 2008 and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize the following year. One can see why.
It’s Albee-esque, even if the first act, which sets up the back story, drags a little.
Like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Becky” revolves around two couples with messy emotional entanglements. Suzanna Slater (Olivia Wilusz as a whippersnapper with unknown blind spots) and Andrew Porter (Kevin Fanshaw as a strong-minded, limp-bodied dweeb) met on the ski slopes when she was suicidal. She’s a psychiatry grad student and he’s a writer. He talked her into relishing life again and married her soon afterward.
Now the newlyweds have set up their respective friends Max Garrett and Becky on a date. A powerful money manager, Max (tightly wound Logan Verdoorn) grew up like a brother with Suzanna after his mother died and his criminal father was sent off to jail. That’s the story, anyway. You’re best advised not to trust anyone in “Becky.”
Becky, herself, is Andrew’s friend. A keen observer but a woman of few words, she’s had a semester of school and has been bouncing around for a while. Her family disowned her for loving a black man. She has no female friends and is a maw of need, which Andrew is willing to fill, complicating his marriage.
The story also includes Suzanna’s biological mother, named Susan Slater (pitch-perfect Jodi Kellogg). Max and Becky are oil and water. He’s an emotionally stunted jerk who uses people. She’s an emotionally scarred piece of work who also uses people but in a different way. Becky has the fewest lines of the major characters, but her words are spooky and carry a lot of weight. She can unravel a world, or bind it tighter, with just one thread.
Newhard plumbs the role with frisson and confidence. And it’s not just her curt, epigrammatic line readings. When she stands onstage, her quiet is solicitous. And she shows how her character is an emotional alchemist, converting anything thrown at her — sympathy, pity, scorn — into raw power.
Carl Schoenborn designed the lights and sets for a two-star hotel room and similar environs where the action takes place. The locales are decidedly flea-bitten, like the sights and ambitions of these “Becky” characters who show how the search for love can be such a scary thing.