Gremlin Theatre's 'Becky Shaw' revels in uncomfortable laughter

Becky Shaw, Gremlin Theater (2020). Photo by Alyssa Kristine

Becky Shaw, Gremlin Theater (2020). Photo by Alyssa Kristine Alyssa Kristine

The pseudo-sibling pair at the center of Becky Shaw are, well, theatrical. They have big mouths and quick (if not always sharp) wits that get them into trouble time and again. Playwright Gina Gionfriddo holds the characters back from the brink of caricature, though, and you may realize you know people like this. You might have dated a Max or a Suzanna. You might even be one.

Becky Shaw

Gremlin Theatre

That’s an uncomfortable truth, and despite the show’s provocative plot twists and frequent chuckles, Becky Shaw isn’t a particularly comfortable experience. In Gremlin Theatre’s strong new production of the 2008 Pulitzer finalist, director Ellen Fenster owns that difficulty and turns it into a virtue. We believe Suzanna (Olivia Wilusz) wants to change, and we want to see whether she can.

As the play opens, Suzanna and Max (Logan Verdoorn) are coping with the recent death of Suzanna’s father. He and his wife (a snappy Jodi Kellogg) essentially adopted Max as a child, when Max’s mother died. It’s immediately apparent that Max and Suzanna, who share the kind of physical intimacy you don’t typically see in thirtysomething siblings, have sustained a quarter-century of mutual attraction.

Is that plausible? Hey, it’s theater. What’s certainly realistic is the way that the pair’s emotional intimacy interferes with their other relationships. After the script flashes forward several months, we find Suzanna married to Andrew (Kevin Fanshaw). The couple decide to set Max up with Andrew’s co-worker, the eponymous Becky Shaw (Chelsie Newhard).

The play is well-suited for Gremlin’s thrust stage, which brings the audience in close for these difficult conversations. Set designer Carl Schoenborn creates a series of distinctive spaces with well-placed touches of set dressing, and Emmet Kowler’s stylish projections add visual interest, all in the service of the storytelling.

The smartly assembled actors consistently shine. Verdoorn cracks like a whip, his timing relentless as Max pushes buttons with the confidence of a master manipulator. At first Suzanna’s just as grating, but a superb Wilusz gradually opens up and lets us see that she’s having doubts about her allegiance to this cruel man.

Although Andrew doesn’t get any zippy quips, Fanshaw lands the show’s biggest laughs as a kind person who fell in love with Suzanna at her most vulnerable and is now realizing what she’s like when she regains her confidence. The suspicious Max thinks Andrew’s supportive strength might also be a weakness, and Fanshaw subtly shows us how Max might be right.

Becky Shaw herself is an enigma who comes into these characters’ lives and catalyzes a realignment of their relationships. Seemingly simple, Becky proves surprisingly insinuating, and Newhard wisely plays her with restraint. Why is the play named after her? Playwright Gionfriddo lets you figure that out for yourself, but you’re left with the impression that Becky would think the title perfectly apt.

Becky Shaw
Gremlin Theatre
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul
Through January 26; 1-888-71-TICKETS