Girl, interpreted

Gina Gionfriddo delves into the mind of a woman adrift in Becky Shaw.

FEMININE MYSTIQUE Gionfriddo is sitting pretty for a new premiere.

FEMININE MYSTIQUE Gionfriddo is sitting pretty for a new premiere. Photo: Peter Hocking

Becky Shaw the show may have been the belle of last year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, but Becky Shaw the person has proven much harder to classify. Lonely, temperamental and needy, Gina Gionfriddo’s titular character—a 35-year-old college dropout and temp—falls apart after a robbery ruins a blind date. She embeds herself in the lives of others, including married couple Andrew and Suzanna, and Max, Suzanna’s longtime family friend. A tightly wound lawyer and Becky’s erstwhile date, Max sums up his feelings when he declares, “Romantic relationships are the pairing of equals! That woman is not my equal!”

“I had a guy say to me how it’s so important that you’re exposing this kind of woman,” says Gionfriddo, describing a conversation she had during the play’s premiere in Louisville, Kentucky. “That’s not what I was doing. Another friend thinks this play is about a good, innocent person in a cesspool of bad people.”

As one character observes, Becky likely belongs somewhere in the middle, and this biting comedy should provide fodder for postshow lattes or lagers. It crackles with verve and wit as the quartet of friends and Suzanna’s recently widowed mother come unglued coping with transitions in their lives. Gionfriddo, 39, asks what our responsibilities are to the people who need us—even if we don’t know them very well. The tone sits somewhere between Neil LaBute’s caustic bad-behavior studies and Theresa Rebeck’s angsty relationship tales.

The dramatist was raised in Washington, D.C., and studied English as an undergraduate at Barnard. An internship at Primary Stages inspired a switch into stage writing, and following graduate studies at Brown, she stayed in Providence, where she taught, wrote and hustled to get her plays produced. After securing a job at Law & Order: Criminal Intent, she moved back to New York in 2004, where she’s now a writer-producer for the flagship show. That same year, Gionfriddo’s moody comedy After Ashley won accolades at the Humana Festival and enjoyed a run at the Vineyard Theatre.

Although Gionfriddo is happy to talk about problems facing women in theater, she says she’s often told she writes “more like a guy.... My characters fight a lot.” Director Peter DuBois has been attracted to her sharply drawn portraits ever since they attended grad school together. “She has such a great sense of what motivates human behavior,” the director says of his colleague who, like Sarah Ruhl, studied with Paula Vogel at Brown. “She can take dark situations and make them so funny and so moving. Gina is one of the best voices out there right now.”

Gionfriddo also wanted to explore the potential minefield of friends setting friends up on dates, how Americans feel about a woman eager to improve her economic plight through marriage ( la Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp) and how something as seemingly innocuous as overdressing can affect social dynamics—a mistake Becky makes when she dons a girly pink dress for her date. “I’ve done it, and it may just be a $10 dress and a tube of red lipstick, but you look like you have expectations,” the author says. “I’m interested in how you become disempowered really fast. People see you made an effort, and you made an effort means you need something.”

That cool cynicism is one way that her characters prove to be products of their time. (In bygone days, wouldn’t a man have appreciated rather than dreaded a woman who dressed up for a date?) Although there’s only a brief mention of Iraq, the character of Max especially seems to reflect our political self-interest of the past eight years.

“I don’t know enough about the Middle East to write about it,” Gionfriddo says, “but I would like to think that the microcosm is the macrocosm. If you can’t treat strangers in your own neighborhood decently, it’s not likely you’re going to care very much about collateral damage in Iraq. It’s about consciousness for other people’s health and well-being when they can’t do anything for you.”

Given that Becky provokes both scorn and sympathy, does her creator see her as predator or prey? “I need not to know exactly what I think to keep myself interested,” she says. “What happened in Louisville was great. People in the audience were very divided. It varied on a night-to-night basis who they really loved. I tend to gravitate toward subject matter that I feel a little bit ethically gray about.”

Becky Shaw is at Second Stage Theatre.