Every character in SF Playhouse’s production of Gina Gionfriddo’s 2008 off-Broadway comic drama “Becky Shaw” (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) is complex and deeply flawed — and intriguing.
There’s weepy, neurotic Suzanna (a vulnerable, convincingly unstable Liz Sklar), working toward a doctorate in psychology and “untethered,” as she says, since the recent death of her father — whom she now has reason to think she didn’t know all that well.
There’s her haughty mother, Susan (a crystal-clear, focused portrayal by Lorri Holt), who has multiple sclerosis and with whom Suzanna has a charged and fractious relationship.
Susan tells her daughter briskly, “You’re infatuated with your grief.”
There’s Suzanna’s confidante and quasi-adopted brother, Max, a financial advisor (an exquisitely slick and cynical turn by Brian Robert Burns). The two are connected in ways that are not completely healthy.
Soon enough, there’s Suzanna’s new, do-gooder husband, Andrew (Lee Dolson, wonderfully awkward and sincere), compelled to “save” troubled young women.
And there’s the titular Becky Shaw (think Becky Sharp, the social climber of “Vanity Fair”), a needy co-worker of Andrew’s. In Lauren English’s layered performance, Becky is both desperately insecure and subtly manipulative.
When Andrew and Suzanna decide to fix Max and Becky up on a blind date, the plan backfires, and Suzanna and Andrew’s marriage — a recent and hasty affair — is shaken to its core.
Issues emerge, among them racism, social status and wealth. Clever, arrogant Max has lots of money; widowed Susan, in love with what Max calls an “indie-rock boy toy,” has too little for her lifestyle; Andrew doesn’t care about money; Suzanna is worried about it; and Becky is so broke she doesn’t have a cellphone.
It takes two acts of witty banter, tears, hysteria and ferocious fights for the various strands of the play to coalesce as the gifted playwright follows these five troubled people over the course of a year.
Among other things, sharp-eyed Gionfriddo is examining how middle-class Americans position themselves in society, and how we do and do not take responsibility for ourselves and for others.
Under Amy Glazer’s sensitive direction — and with this excellent SF Playhouse cast, so adept at exploring the deepest fears and feelings of Gionfriddo’s unpredictable characters — “Becky Shaw” is engaging from start to finish.
It plays out smartly on Bill English’s compact, revolving set, enhanced by strong design work all around. Miyuki Bierlein’s cleavage-revealing outfits for Becky are particularly apt — increasingly so, as we learn more about the disingenuous character.
Presented by SF Playhouse
Where: 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes March 10
Tickets: $40 to $70
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org