Monday, April 19, 2010

Becky Shaw: an eye-opener about the sexes

True to form, Sacramento’s B Street Theatre offers a main stage show that’s both entertaining and instructive. Introducing us to nationally recognized playwright Gina Gionfriddo, director Buck Busfield, also the theater’s producing artistic director, opens a window on today’s emerging cultural values. If you didn’t know who wrote the play you would never imagine that it came from the pen of a woman.

Its four main characters treat promiscuity as a norm, like changing partners on a dance floor. A fifth character, the elderly Susan Slater (Elizabeth Benedict), mother of Susanna Slater (Lindsey Gates), is just about as sexually permissive as the others. Hearing that her late husband had a reputation as a gay, she replies that if people want to be gay they should go ahead and be gay. Her new boyfriend is not just a friend but her lover.

Daughter Susanna is married to young Andrew Porter (Brian Rife), after what appears a conventional exploration of sex and love through promiscuity, which encourages the unattached (and semi-attached) among us to explore their tastes, as if shopping for new clothes. Almost shrugging off conventional morality, she declares, “Sometimes lying is the most humane thing you can do.”

Dominating the play is her step-brother, Max Garrett, who was adopted by her mother. B Street veteran Kurt Johnson plays him with so much dash that he all but runs away with the play. He delivers most of Gionfriddo’s zingers, such as “love is a by-product of use.” His self-indulgent cynicism is a complement to his practical success in business and money management, and he knows exactly where to find a good lawyer.

He’s also contemptuous of Andrew, an aspiring writer, and sums him up by saying, “He scribbles and brews coffee,” and “He thinks 401k is a band.” With good intentions Susanna and Andrew set up the free-wheeling Max with the seriously disturbed and suicidal Becky Shaw (Samantha Sloyan).

Becky resists well-meaning attempts to help, declaring that “I don’t want Ghetto therapy.” She also declares that “happiness makes me mean.”

But her mental problems, including attempted suicide, don’t soften Max, who observes, “You force people to hurt you.”

“I would like you to try harder,” he tells her, “the next time you try suicide.”

While the play manages to be witty and clever, with touches of insight and revelations about current attitudes about sex and love, it seems too harsh and cynical to pass for comedy. With witty character development by the actors, and under Busfield’s tight direction, its satirical observations occasionally provoke laughter along with insight, despite some awkwardness from being played in the round.

“Becky Shaw” continues through May 30 at 2711 B Street, behind the Stanford Park Baseball Field. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 2 and 6:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays at 5 and 9 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18-$30. Call (916) 443-5300. See also

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