Gay dads, codependence and the post-feminist cleverness of ‘Becky Shaw’


BAD DATES | Four damaged adults behave like petty children in Kitchen Dog’s ‘Becky Shaw.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

A closeted gay dad squanders his fortune while carrying on a torrid affair with his Japanese financial adviser; meanwhile, his wife hires rent boys while his overeducated, under-realized daughter soaks herself in dramatic grieving. Just a typical upper-class family in countless comedic plays, from Neil Simon to A.R. Gurney to Woody Allen.

Only in Becky Shaw, Kitchen Dog Theater’s snap-crackle-pop culture tirade through the modern family, playwright Gina Gionfriddo has hit a sweet spot, where unbearable, ego-centric one-percenters snipe at each other while their neuroses keep them from becoming self-actualized humans. This is the kind of super-smart comedy of manners many attempt but few have the gift of language to pull off — one where a pompous bully (Max Hartmann, channeling Jeremy Piven’s relentless attack-dog defense mechanism — damaged, indignant), a granola-crunching, Toms Shoes-wearing hipster-poet (Michael Federico, in full Phil Donahue mode) and a confused urban princess (Leah Spillman, sufficiently addled) nevertheless are fun to spend time with … even if the reason is a chance to witness their inevitable implosions.

The trick seems to be that the play itself avoids self-indulgence while the characters wallow in it. No one is as strong as he or she appears to be, no one as weak as they would have you realize.

There’s a misogynistic air running through Becky Shaw, the kind you usually associate with David Mamet or Neil LaBute, only rewritten by a woman, they lose their moral superiority and attempts at justification. Gionfriddo lays men out bare (and women), including the clingy, awkward title character (Jenny Ledel) and the brittle matriarch (Cindy Beall). It’s as if Tennessee Williams had written a chamber piece about Northerners.

David Walsh’s set is an amusing mish-mash, with scenery hanging from the rafters like a consignment store. He and director Tina Parker seem to be keeping the furniture out of the way and arrested, mid-air, much like the way these characters deal with their emotions.

“If you look hard enough at anyone, you’ll be revolted,” observes the mother. Becky Shaw does just that, but with a twist: It handles serious matters with such clear-eyed understanding of human complexity and a sharp wit, you almost don’t see the tragedy underneath.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 21, 2012.