Gina Gionfriddo, an avowed true-crime hobbyist and former writer on "Law & Order" and "Cold Case," currently writing for HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," knows all about criminal activity, but her latest play, "Becky Shaw" — shortlisted for the Pulitzer in 2009 and receiving its Southern California premiere Oct. 29 — involves perhaps the harshest crime of all: wearing the wrong dress to a first date.
"I had this image of a woman set up for a date, who overdresses," Gionfriddo says about the genesis of her play. "When something is important to you, you can betray that by something as simple as overdressing. And then the minute you walk into the room, the power balance is instantly shifted out of your favor."
On paper, the plot of "Becky Shaw" may involve little more than the ramifications of overdressing, but Gionfriddo's eye for furtive and deviant behavior gives this chamber piece the expansive feel of an Updike novel or an Antonioni film. "Becky Shaw" presents the foibles of only five people, but Gionfriddo's writing suggests their quirks reflect larger moral dilemmas in today's America.
That "Becky Shaw" flirts with these weightier themes while never feeling like an "important" or "serious" play is testament to Gionfriddo's sharp dialogue and expert pacing. The playwright's time on the staffs of hit television series has not coarsened her writing; instead it seems to have been enriched. Her previous full-length plays, "US Drag" and "After Ashley," share "Becky's" wit and fluency, but this play is tighter and more resonant.
"I definitely gained discipline from TV writing, because you have these very hard and fast deadlines," Gionfriddo explains. "But it is a formula and I get rewritten. Mainly, the kind of existential-philosophical things that gnaw at me could not find their outlet there.... I think for me I need the outlet of self-expression that is playwriting."
Gionfriddo's existential-philosophical pangs found their outlet in the title character of "Becky Shaw," the most complex and enigmatic role seen on American stages in recent years. The play has already been produced in many regional theaters since its 2008 premiere, but this SCR staging marks the first time one of Gionfriddo's plays has been mounted in Southern California. (It will also be performed for radio broadcast at L.A. Theatre Works in February.)
Initially, the playwright was reluctant to name the play after her character. "I didn't ever want to have a play that was a person's name, because I think it's a copout. I kept trying to call it 'Gun Focus,' which was something I learned about on 'Law & Order,' she says. "The 'gun focus effect' is when a weapon is involved in the commission of a crime, the victim's ability to tell you what the person looked like is greatly diminished, because the focus goes to the weapon."
What helped persuade Gionfriddo to change the title was the director of the play's New York production, Peter DuBois. "He said, 'You know there's something haunting about the title 'Becky Shaw,' and I'm not sure why,' and I realized what it was: It placed the play in the tradition of all of these 18th or 19th century novels about women who either ruin or are ruined — or sometimes both."
Gionfriddo and the actress who played Becky off-Broadway, Annie Parisse, speak of how the character divides audiences. Says Parisse: "At audience talkbacks, people would say she was a monster."
A critic for "Variety" said Gionfriddo "invites comparisons between her title character, an emotional succubus with the needy thirst of a vampire, and William Makepeace Thackeray's conniving 19th century social climber, Becky Sharp."
"There were people who found her incredibly dangerous — and many men, in particular, found her manipulative to a degree that was frightening," Gionfriddo says.
Becky's issues turn out to be more than just wearing the wrong dress on a first date. In creating a character who feels that life is slipping away from her, Gionfriddo thought of people she met when she studied acting in her early 20s. "These people who were trying to be actors at 21 started turning 35," she recalls, "I saw it over and over again. If they hadn't gotten to where they wanted to be, they were almost wild-eyed and crazy, 'I gotta get it, I gotta get it now.'
"I felt like I wanted to deal with a character like Becky who was at that age of looking around and feeling like, 'Wow, my ship had better come in, I don't want to be stuck here,'" she says. "And so one blind date with a wealthy guy becomes the only beacon of hope."
The challenge of playing Becky Shaw is not letting her devolve into a simple stalker or some other cliché of a mad woman. For Parisse, that meant embracing Becky's recklessness and danger but also acknowledging the character's humanity: "Yes, she has huge needs; it's just Becky's not good at hiding it," Parisse says.
Angela Goethals will play Becky at SCR. She also emphasizes the importance of making the character sympathetic. "Playing Becky is playing someone that's truly at a moment of transition in her life," Goethals says. Gionfriddo's characters are so human, she says, that "I certainly feel there are parts of Becky that are also part of me."
Goethals also adds that she wouldn't run away from Becky if she saw her at a party: "I'm not afraid of people who show vulnerability. If I saw her in her fluffy dress, I think I would try to rescue her." Would she introduce her husband to Becky? "No," she says with a laugh, "she's definitely trouble. Knowing what I know, I would keep my man away from Becky Shaw."