Edge of your seat, funny, thought provoking . . . all describe "Becky Shaw"

 Photo by Steve Wagner photography

Photo by Steve Wagner photography

Explosions slice and dice the air with a ferocity and as fast as a bullet train inside the intimate Dobama Theatre space during its riveting production of “Becky Shaw,” a shockingly funny comedy of rudeness and a Pulitzer-Prize finalist.

The promising playwright Gina Gionfriddo notes in her introduction that audience members after past productions couldn’t help but dislike and assign blame to the characters for the emotional carnage at the end. She also notes she doesn’t believe the characters are “bad or wrong or crazy or worthless or unlovable.”

It’s fitting that scalpel-sharp dialogue infuses this taut, intense play. Because in order to probe beneath the bad manners of these characters, one especially, you’ll need a surgical-like object.

As directed by Donald Carrier, you’ll need every bit of the object’s penetrating ability to uncover even an ounce of kindness or motivation behind much of the despicable nature of especially one Max. Shouting characters hurl insults, stereotypes and invective at each other with the speed of a fastball from the hand of former pitching great Nolan Ryan. Think David Mamet’s intense, rapid-fire dialogue and you’ll begin to get an idea of how the characters rudely almost talk over each other.

The first act whizzes by at the speed of a cheetah chasing down its prey in an open field. But it’s a credit to Carrier that we don’t miss any of the verbal mud the characters sling at each other, some causing laughs of the gasping variety. Carrier also deserves praise for varying the pace, allowing nuance to shine through the performances at times.

This deceptively simple play about a blind date gone horrible contains heartfelt moments and poetic language that might make you say “Becky Shaw” in the same breath as “literature.”

The multi-dimensional characters’ intentions, as hard as it might be to believe with their potty mouths spewing vitriol, don’t have malicious desires; their heart’s in the right place.

Dobama Theatre is known for staging provocative, challenging new work that makes audience members uncomfortable, ponder the plays and provokes discussion. “Becky Shaw’s” no different.’ The play is set in New York, Boston and Providence in 2009. Max, a money manager, has lived with Suzanna since her parents basically adopted him after his mother died and his father remained out of his life.

The play begins as Suzanna is grieving the loss of her own father and her multiple-sclerosis-stricken mother, Susan, is trying to settle affairs. But the indomitable Susan has a new boyfriend, something the mourning Suzanna finds revolting. At this point, the play appears to be a predictable, formulaic work about the grieving process and how quick is too quick to re-marry. But just as Dobama artistic director Nathan Motta encourages us not to rush to judge these characters, one shouldn’t do so about the play from its first few scenes. “Becky Shaw” is anything but predictable. It grapples with such issues as the extent of debt we owe to those closest to us and those who suddenly enter our lives, the nature of love and the often gray areas surrounding morality and ethics. Indeed, one of the play’s strengths is it causes us to frequently shift allegiances as the characters argue about what and who’s right.

Within Dobama’s intimate playing space, in a thrust configuration (audiences seated on three sides of the stage) it’s almost as though we’re a jury hearing the arguments and rendering, but hopefully not rushing to judge. At one point, Carrier has the actors playing Max and Shaw stand among us, following a traumatic situation involving the characters. It makes the action feel that much more powerful.

These characters aren’t “types.” Even one character who never appears on stage, Suzanna’s late father, is described as a “liar and denier and the greatest man I’ve ever known.”

As Max, Geoff Knox would appear to have the easiest job. From the way Max is written, he comes across merely as a power- hungry, obnoxious jerk. As played by Knox, add loud to those adjectives. His screaming within Dobama’s intimate confines adds to the character’s revolting nature. Granted, it’s a challenge to find the good in Max. And Knox, while giving an impressively convincing performance, during which he more than maintains his stamina (not an easy feat) and drips obnoxiousness and contempt, doesn’t quite mine the character for any soft spots. Have that surgical instrument handy.

Lara Knox creates a multi-faceted character in Suzanna, a young woman who can be girlish and charming one moment, spiteful the next and emotionally injured after that. Lara Knox handles all these traits with seeming ease, transitioning smoothly from one emotion to the next.

Anjanette Hall invests Shaw with a mysterious aura, hiding behind a charming, confident facade without any hint of Shaw’s demons. But as Hall peels away at that vivacious, happy aura, a troubled, vulnerable, even vengeful woman emerges. One of Shaw’s inner conflicts will leave you really pondering this woman, who sounds like a bigot at one point. But in order to understand where she’s truly coming from, you must “climb into her skin and walk around in it” as “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch would say.

Susan may be physically disabled with her multiple sclerosis, but Laura Starnik makes her a woman who won’t let that issue keep her from living. This indomitable nature endears us to her, but Susan’s also devious, calculating, glamorous and bitter — traits Starnik makes convincing with her sly, askance, confident glance.

Andrew, Suzanna’s husband, is like a knight that’s come to the rescue of these hurting women. Ryan Zarecki convincingly conveys his protecting, caring nature. He also commands the stage and makes a dark turn when it comes time for Andrew to take a stern stance.

Esther Haberlen’s costumes help define the characters, particularly the velvety, glamorous clothes Susan wears in the beginning. This woman WILL keep on living, handicap or no handicap..and her sex life is far from over.

Marcus Dana’s realistic lighting is toned down during intimate moments.

Richard Ingraham’s sound effects, which include thunder at just the right time, reinforce the play’s darkness.

Cameron Caley Michalak’s spacious set divides the stage into parts. These divisions represent the various cities in which the play is set, allowing for seamless transitions without too many moving parts.

At times, this production moves too fast; it’s as though the dialogue seems rehearsed, not spontaneous. And some lines, particularly when Max demands of Shaw whether she’s threatening him, needs to sound more deliberate. But when it comes to a power-packed play experience, you won’t find many like Dobama’s “Becky Shaw.”

WHAT: “Becky Shaw”

WHEN: Through Sunday, March 29. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights

How Much: Ticket prices range from $25 to $28 with senior and student discounts available. Call 216-932-3396.