Veterans of the mating wars will recognize the scene, from one agonizing side or another. There has been a single date — an awkward date that began with the tactless suggestion that the woman's dress resembled a birthday cake — but it concluded in sex.
For one party — in this case, a man named Max — that was that, thanks very much, crisis of long-term incompatibility averted. But for the other party — a needy, sad-sack, cellphone-free, office temp named Becky Shaw — the sudden intimacy, broken almost as soon as it began, was a sudden rush of oxygen in a life spent underwater. She wants more, or at least an explanation as to why more will not be forthcoming. Somehow the couple find themselves at one of those pointless restaurant postmortems that most of us have agreed to after a relationship collapses (I recall being on both sides at different points of my life), only to immediately wonder why. And any such postmortem that begins with that passive-aggressive classic, "But what did I do wrong?" is going to be hell for both sides.
One of the points in "Becky Shaw," a savvy and smart — and defiantly unsentimental — Gina Gionfriddo play that starts slowly but ultimately packs a wicked punch, is that it is generally better to be on the receiving end of that question than to be the one saying it. But this Chicago premiere, which opened Wednesday night at A Red Orchid Theatre, is not just a play about a date from hell — or, since the date in question was arranged by friends, a set-up from hell. Its sands shift far more subtly. Precisely who is the needier party here is constantly up for debate. It is Becky Shaw, as deftly played by Mierka Girten, a 30-something who might be either a much-scratched diamond in the Rhode Island rough or a borderline psychopath? Or is it mercurial Max, played in deliciously unstinting fashion by Lance Baker, an actor who brilliantly captures a man who looks and acts like a busy, controlling, intimacy-averse man of finance, but actually is … well, I won't spoil things.
You should, however, know that "Becky Shaw" does not start with Becky Shaw, or this fascinating date. The first scene reveals some of Max's back story: his adoption by a family other than his own and, most crucially, his complex relationship with his sort-of half-sister Suzanna (Jennifer Engstrom), with whom he shares an intense and peculiar family history (Susan Monts-Bologna plays Susan, Suzanna's caustic, in-crisis mother). That shared past does not evaporate when Suzanna marries Andrew (the genial Dan Granata) who comes up with the idea of setting up Max and Becky.
In Damon Kiely's uneven production of a difficult play, that long first scene almost torpedoes the entire show. The problem is that the scene is played so broadly. Engstrom — who is, the title would suggest, playing a supporting character — offers up an emotionally wrought, wildly needy, physically failing character with nary a shade of irony or self-awareness. Engstrom is a formidable actress in the right role. But she's miscast here, and, frankly, her jumpy Suzanna is so tense and neurotic, it upstages Becky Shaw herself, who seems positively benign by comparison (and you don't get why gentle Andrew would ever marry her). It's hard to fathom why this first scene is so over-the-top and set apart: You keep thinking you're watching a play within a play, a la "The Real Thing," and that someone will pop up and yell "cut" and reveal that the characters are actually actors. But no. The same issues afflict Monts-Bologna, who initially has an extravagant, Southern-style characterization that puts one in mind of an overripe Tennessee Williams matriarch.
Granted, "Becky Shaw" (which premiered at the Humana Festival and played Off-Broadway in 2009, is a comedy intended to keep you on your toes (and that succeeds). Granted, it messes with style. But it surely does not serve the play to start off with the flailing audience so unmoored and unrooted in any kind of truth, especially in such a small theater. When Scene 2 begins, following a needlessly clunky set-change, it feels like we have suddenly shifted to an entirely different play altogether. Yet we're supposed to be on the same plain: a heightened state, sure, and populated by those who are only just holding their acts together. But the piece requires Suzanna and Susan to act like normative characters and weigh in on moral matters with alacrity. In this production, they're both so way-out-there in that perplexing first scene, it's too difficult to take what they eventually come to say seriously.
Thankfully, the whole production settles down considerably after intermission and Kiely and his actors find a much surer groove. This is a show that only works after the date begins. But once that disaster is well under way, many of Kiely's confrontations between the coiled-up Baker, who is brilliantly cast, and Girten, who reveals her clever creation bit by bit, are quite gripping in their psychological intensity. You can feel the audience belatedly finding the play, which is frequently very, very funny and that really cuts right through a lot of psychobabble claptrap, if everyone would just trust the actual ride.
When: Through Nov. 6
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Tickets: $25-30 at 312-943-8722 or aredorchidtheatre.com