“Serial killers are really not that interesting,” Gina Gionfriddo remarked matter-of-factly. She was picking at a salad in the back of a Midtown restaurant about a block away from Second Stage Theater, where she has just come from a rehearsal for her new play, Becky Shaw.
Gionfriddo considers herself “an absolute encyclopedia of true crime” — a handy characteristic for someone who writes for television’s Law & Order — and in her experienced eye, crimes motivated by money, power and status are the most compelling and transgressive.
“I feel we’re so squeamish about class in this country,” she said. “It’s more taboo than sexuality.” In her new work there is a crime — a robbery — but social ambition provides the engine and the theme.
For readers of Victorian literature, the name Becky Shaw brings to mind another famous social climber: Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. There are lots of Becky Sharp-like characters in 19th-century literature, Gionfriddo says, and for the most part they are vilified and punished for refusing to stay in their place. Thackeray’s Sharp is described as “monstrous” and “serpentine.” “There’s a need for women to be put in their place” for being too aggressive, Gionfriddo said.
“People like Becky Sharp and Hedda Gabler are boldly out there, aggressively trying to get stuff,” she continued. Though they were a product of their era (“Today they would have been Anna Wintour,” she said), even now “I do think we recoil from people who do that.”
In Gionfriddo’s play, which opened on Thursday, there are no consummate villains or heroes. “I wanted my Becky to be a figure that is out of her class and trying to break in,” she said. “I didn’t want her to be a viper, just someone who at 35 made a lot of mistakes and didn’t have many options.”
In the play the seemingly forlorn Becky (Annie Parisse) is brought into a muddle of family relations when she is set up on a blind date by a well-meaning co-worker, Andrew (Thomas Sadoski). The date is with Max (David Wilson Barnes), the acerbic adopted brother of Andrew’s new wife, Suzanna (Emily Bergl).
Writing about the debut of Becky Shaw this spring at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called it “a thoroughly enjoyable play, suspenseful, witty and infused with an unsettling sense of the potential for psychic disaster inherent in almost any close relationship.”
At a recent rehearsal the cast had gathered in the third-floor studio at Second Stage to go over Max and Becky’s awkward first encounter in the newlyweds’ apartment. Peter Dubois, the director, waved a list, compiled by Gionfriddo, of 19th-century novels about women trying to push their way into a new class or position. He wanted the entire cast to have a copy of the list.
“Books about ruin coming to women for jumping their class have been written for 200 years,” Dubois explained. Later he said, “I think there’s something really amazing to get a sense that this story that we’re telling has a long literary history.”
He then talked to the actors about the scene. “Fighting is a healthy, living impulse,” he said. “Suzanna and Max share that, whereas Andrew sees it as unhealthy.” Gionfriddo pointed to one of Suzanna’s lines about her mother: “If she fights with me, she’s OK.”