The set up:
Is it just me or does it seem like a new theater company is popping up in Houston every month? This past year, no doubt somewhat spurred by the newly available performance stages at MATCH and other studio spaces, we’ve seen small companies proliferate at an exciting rate for those of us hungry for new perspectives and talents on our stages.
Or maybe these companies aren’t new at all. Maybe, like in the case of Firecracker Productions, they’ve been around for a couple years but we (meaning we at the Houston Press) just haven’t heard of them. It begs the existential question – if company stages a play in Houston but the critics don’t even know the company exists, does the play make a loud enough sound?
In the case of Firecracker’s explosively thrilling Houston premiere production of Becky Shaw, there’s no doubt that what this young, talented company has created on stage has impact regardless of who is or isn’t in the audience. But lucky for me (and by extension you) this time the powers that be at Firecracker threw up a big ‘hello we’re here’ sign for us, and we happily took the bait.
I’ll be honest; it was the play itself that intrigued me the most. Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw premiered at the venerable Humana Festival in 2008, opened Off-Broadway the same year to critical acclaim and went on to become a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Add to the accolades the description of the play as a wickedly cynical comedy of relationships, and the intrigue just grew.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how expertly this previously unknown to me company with so many previously unknown to me actors would take this lauded show and perform the hell out of it
It takes about 15 minutes into the play before you realize that all the characters are fairly deplorable in some way or another. Passive aggressive, co-dependant and high strung Suzanna (a sublime Danielle Bunch) and her slacker, ridiculously emotionally available new husband Andrew (played with terrific eye roll-worthy sensitivity by Nolan LeGault) decide to set up their friends Max and Becky on a blind date.
Well, not their friends exactly. Max (a show stopping funny but frightening Reed Walker) is actually a kind of brother figure to Suzanna as her parents took him in and raised him when his own mother died. A successful money manager now, and void of anything resembling empathy or social grace, Max is caustic to the core but committed to Suzanna and her family. He even tries to clean up the financial mess after Suzanna’s father dies penniless and her outspoken and often cruel mother Susan (a wonderfully calculating Sammi Sicinski) takes up with a con artist lover who lands in jail.
Becky (played with perfect comedic skittishness by Darin Montemayor) is Andrew’s new co-worker who he describes as ‘sensitive’ for lack of really knowing anything about her aside from her perilous condition. Broke, estranged from her family, without a car or a cell phone and desperately dying to hook a man, Becky presents as a bundle of insecure, jumpy but seemingly honest nerves.
Needless to say the blind date doesn’t go very well and the traumatic ramifications cause all five of the characters to spin into crises, mainly of their own making, with darkly humorous results.
So what then is the appeal of the play? Haven’t we seen this bad people behaving badly time and time again on stage, most notably from the amorally merciless Neil LaBute? Sure, but what makes Gionfriddo’s work here so thrilling is not simply the badness of her characters, but rather her exploration of the ever-changing moral ground on which they stand.
No one is as they seem as the play works its way thought the various character crises. Max is not all heartlessness, Becky is not as innocent as she appears, Andrew’s love and sensitivity has a toxic side, Suzanna’s high ground loyalty is a sandcastle waiting to be washed away and Susan’s mean frankness actually has a tinge of loving, smart advice.
With no "good" or 'bad" people then, how do we look at people's good or bad actions? Its a compelling question that keeps us engaged and often laughing for the length of the play. We simultaneously hate and feel affection for these poor complex characters and thanks to Gionfriddo’s Aaron Sorkin-like mile a minute barb throwing dialogue we thrill in their bullet-flying conversations that are as outrageous as they are funny.
That this whole production comes together so strongly is thanks to Kelsey McMillan’s firm yet creative directorial hand. McMillan keeps her cast like rubber bands stretched to the max, just waiting to shoot off at each other. This tension along with her astute ability to create life like arguments where characters interrupt and talk over each other brings an extra fizz to the already crackling dialogue. But its McMillan’s in between scene staging that most caught our attention.
To counter the explosive banter of almost every scene, McMillian slows things down and smartly allows us to catch our breath for a moment. Before exiting the stage, she has her characters sit still in silence as if each personally trying to grapple with what they just said and heard. We watch them work things through as we ourselves digest each new shift in plot and behavior. It’s a small but powerful effect that renders the rest of the play all the more intoxicating thanks to the reflective pause.
In this last section of our review we usually sum up our feelings about a play and try to give final pithy but meaningful comments about what we’ve seen. But since in this case, what was felt about the show started all the way up at the top of the piece, I’ll instead direct the verdict to all the new, newish or new to us companies out there at present and in future.
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Had it not been for Firecracker reaching out to let us know about their production of Becky Shaw, this review would not have happened. Sure, in inviting a critic to your show you run the risk of them not liking it and publicly saying so. I get that. But you work hard to put on what you hope is good work. My utmost joy is telling readers that you’ve done good work.
So here’s my promise to you, if you ask me, I will come. Maybe not to each and every one of your shows – schedules and all, y’know. But I will absolutely make the effort to get out and see your work as often as I can.
And fingers crossed that when that happens, I will once again experience the great privilege of writing a rave review such as this one.
Becky Shaw runs through October 22 at Hub Studio, 1502 Sawyer Street. For tickets visit firecrackerproductions.org. $10 - $40.