ST. PETERSBURG — "Fish out of water" is one of the basic scenarios for comedy, and several characters in Becky Shaw fit the bill. None seems more jarringly out of place than Max, a hardnosed young money man with a taste for porn whose relationships never last longer than three months. Max runs amok among members of his culturally correct blended family — he was more or less adopted — and the blind date they set him up with, an Ivy League dropout who, at 35, has been reduced to temping and clinging to dolls in her girlish bedroom.
Naturally, the date goes very wrong in Gina Gionfriddo's brutally funny farce, with an excellent cast directed by Larry Silverberg at freeFall Theatre. But that's just a handy plot device for Becky Shaw, which is really about skewering the pretensions of American family life.
In Keith Edie's bristling, cocksure performance, Max is one angry, alienated guy, but he has met his match in Suzanna (the marvelous Christina DeRosier), whom he grew up with. She's a grad student in psychology who has elevated passive-aggressive codependence to an art form. Cuddled together, they trade lines from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Also mixed into this family stew is Andrew (Jim Sorensen), Suzanna's sensitive new husband, who is much too "indie-rock" for Max; and her mother, Susan (Marsha Cox), who has MS and hasn't wasted any time getting a new lover (her house painter) since her gay, alcoholic husband's death.
Max's ill-fated date, the character Becky Shaw is named for, doesn't turn up until a third of the way into the play, well after Max, Suzanna and the others are established, which makes Becky feel like something of an interloper in her own story. By the time she finally arrives, the behavior of Max and Suzanna is so fraught with dysfunctional complexity that the ostensible main episode is treated almost like an afterthought.
Long story short: After the two get held up by a gunman while walking to a bar, Max takes his date to a hotel and sleeps with her (less delicately expressed in the play), then gives her cab fare to go home. Becky is shattered by the whole experience, which Max refuses to acknowledge.
While Becky is a damaged soul — suicide always seems like an option for her — she is also oddly resilient as played by Natalie Symons, who brings a neurotic brittleness to the role that is just right. In an author's note to the script, Gionfriddo refers to Thackeray's 19th century novel Vanity Fair as a kind of influence, and in a way, you could say that the hapless, downwardly mobile Becky Shaw is something of a twisted, reverse doppelganger for the novel's scheming, social-climbing protagonist, Becky Sharp.
For all its cleverness, Becky Shaw is undermined by a certain impracticality in its staging as Act 2 jumps from scene to scene while the play moves around to various settings in Providence, R.I.; Boston and Richmond, Va. Silverberg and his creative team do as much as possible in trying to go smoothly from one scene to the next, making the scene changes to music and video on screens that flank the playing area, but the busy stage crew — they lug furniture and props, shift some rather noisy sliding panels and so on — becomes a distraction.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.