Sarah Karon, left, and R. Peter Hunt in Mercury Players Theatre's Becky Shaw.
Judging from a synopsis, I expected Mercury Players Theatre's Becky Shaw to be a simple, slightly dark romantic comedy about a bad blind date. Friday night at the Bartell Theatre, I was surprised to find something much more complex, a character-driven play that looks at how complicated relationships can be. It examines the intricacies of family, love and morality in a way that's smart, funny and relevant.
At first glance, Becky Shaw's characters are ones we recognize. There's the confirmed bachelor with a fat wallet and a mean streak, the starving poet/barista, the Ph.D. student in psychology, the depressed hipster, the domineering mother. As bachelor Max, Casey Sean Grimm is forceful - his edginess intensifies as he grows more vulnerable. R. Peter Hunt is well cast as Andrew, an unpublished writer and former coffee slinger. His new bride is grad student Suzanna, played by Cynthia Nixon lookalike Karen Moeller. Sarah Whelan is excellently bossy as Suzanna's mom, Susan.
The play's devious, doe-eyed namesake is played by Sarah Karon, a Mercury newcomer. From the moment Karon walked onstage as Becky Shaw, I was captivated. She's a fascinating mystery, intense without exuding too much energy. Becky's frailty wavers between manipulative and desperate. Karon makes her quietly terrifying.
The script by Gina Gionfriddo, who's also written for NBC's Law & Order, is excellent. It's well-written and entertaining, and it serves up complex, dynamic characters. Full of snappy quips and contemporary references, Becky Shaw indeed feels at times like a television show.
The humor is often irreverent, à la Larry David. "Cutting yourself over the age of 18 is just embarrassing," spews Max in the second act. "The people in the ER should laugh at you." The humor isn't gentle - it's filled with uncomfortable references to topics like pedophilia and the KKK - but the jokes are funny. Really funny.
A script this good doesn't need much in the way of embellishment, and John A. Smith's set design, half living room, half motel room, respects this. The costuming is hit or miss, though. Suzanna's wardrobe seems to have been pulled from a rummage sale's free pile: belted sweaters, mom jeans, polyester scarves. Clothes-wise, she looks like a 40-year-old plucked from the 1990s, not a 35-year-old newlywed in 2009. Well-to-do Max also looks implausibly outdated and frumpy. Becky, on the other hand, is clad in cute indie styles that fit her age and personality, and the time period. Andrew is perfect in his skinny jeans and vintage-looking T-shirt.
While there's room for improvement - "If you look hard enough at anything, anyone, you will be revolted by what you see," wickedly wise Susan muses at one point - Mercury Players' Becky Shaw doesn't disappoint. The top-notch contemporary script, the fascinating characters and a plot full of twists and turns make for a show worth seeing.