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Onstage, Tackling Ambition and Crime
By Patricia Cohen
December 30, 2008
“Serial killers are really not that interesting,” remarked matter-of-factly. She was picking at a salad in the back of a Midtown restaurant about a block away from Second Stage Theater, where she has just come from a rehearsal for her new play, “ .”
Ms. Gionfriddo considers herself “an absolute encyclopedia of true crime” — a handy characteristic for someone who writes for television’s “Law & Order” — and in her experienced eye, crimes motivated by money, power and status are the most compelling and transgressive.
“I feel we’re so squeamish about class in this country,” she said. “It’s more taboo than sexuality.” In her new work there is a crime — a robbery — but social ambition provides the engine and the theme.
For readers of Victorian literature, the name Becky Shaw brings to mind another famous social climber: Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. There are lots of Becky Sharp-like characters in 19th-century literature, Ms. Gionfriddo says, and for the most part they are vilified and punished for refusing to stay in their place. Thackeray’s Sharp is described as “monstrous” and “serpentine.” “There’s a need for women to be put in their place” for being too aggressive, Ms. Gionfriddo said.
“People like Becky Sharp and Hedda Gabler are boldly out there, aggressively trying to get stuff,” she continued. Though they were a product of their era (“Today they would have been Anna Wintour,” she said), even now “I do think we recoil from people who do that.”
In Ms. Gionfriddo’s play, which opens Jan. 8, there are no consummate villains or heroes. “I wanted my Becky to be a figure that is out of her class and trying to break in,” she said. “I didn’t want her to be a viper, just someone who at 35 made a lot of mistakes and didn’t have many options.”
In the play the seemingly forlorn Becky (Annie Parisse) is brought into a muddle of family relations when she is set up on a blind date by a well-meaning co-worker, Andrew (Thomas Sadoski). The date is with Max (David Wilson Barnes), the acerbic adopted brother of Andrew’s new wife, Suzanna (Emily Bergl).
Writing about the debut of “Becky Shaw” this spring at the of at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Charles Isherwood called it “a thoroughly enjoyable play, suspenseful, witty and infused with an unsettling sense of the potential for psychic disaster inherent in almost any close relationship.”
At a recent rehearsal the cast had gathered in the third-floor studio at Second Stage to go over Max and Becky’s awkward first encounter in the newlyweds’ apartment. Peter Dubois, the director, waved a list, compiled by Ms. Gionfriddo, of 19th-century novels about women trying to push their way into a new class or position. He wanted the entire cast to have a copy of the list.
“Books about ruin coming to women for jumping their class have been written for 200 years,” Mr. Dubois explained. Later he said, “I think there’s something really amazing to get a sense that this story that we’re telling has a long literary history.”
He then talked to the actors about the scene. “Fighting is a healthy, living impulse,” he said. “Suzanna and Max share that, whereas Andrew sees it as unhealthy.” Ms. Gionfriddo pointed to one of Suzanna’s lines about her mother: “If she fights with me, she’s O.K.”
Every night Mr. Dubois and Ms. Gionfriddo, who met in graduate school, get together over drinks to discuss the day’s work and possible revisions.
The playwright Adam Rapp, a friend of Ms. Gionfriddo’s, considers her work to have both edge and insight. “She certainly writes about savagery and the way we co-opt each other and destroy each other and pretend to love each other. She does that so well,” he said. Yet, he added, “Her characters still root their feet on the ground no matter how wacky her premise might be.”
The two met at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference at the of her first play, “ in Connecticut , which staged a workshop production ,” in 2003, and presented Mr. Rapp’s “Finer Noble Gases.” “Hers was by far my favorite play there,” he said.
Ms. Gionfriddo first became interested in theater at Georgetown Day School in Washington , where she ended up after a “loathsome” stint in Catholic school. Even then the stories that fascinated her were about crime.
“When I was in high school, other people were books,” she said. ; I was reading the Ted Bundy
“I’ve never been sure if it was the anxiety that violence would be done to me or that I would do violence,” she added, noting that the very thought of being locked up in prison could start her hyperventilating.
“That’s the sophisticated explanation,” she added. “I may just be a ghoul.”
By the time she went to Barnard College in New York , she had settled on acting as a career.
New York offered a welcome if harsh dose of reality. In an acting class the students were lined up and the professors went down the row, declaring what sort of parts each person could play. “I wasn’t the ingénue,” Ms. Gionfriddo recalled. “I could play the ethnic teenager.”
A job at Primary Stages gave her another view of how directors analyzed actors, often dismissing or choosing someone for vague, indefinable reasons.
“I figured out very quickly that I didn’t have what it takes,” she said about acting. But she was intrigued by the process of getting a play into shape.
After graduating from college, she worked as an Off Broadway general manager and met the playwright Mac Wellman. He read some of her work and urged her to go back to school to study playwriting. She did, attending Brown, where the Pulitzer Prize winner teaches.
Is playwriting something anyone can learn? “I think things like structure you can learn,” she said. “If you have a tin ear for dialogue, though, it’s tough.”
It is Ms. Gionfriddo’s feel for dialogue that has gotten her noticed. Rene Balcer, the head writer and executive producer of “Law & Order” and its spinoff “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” hired Ms. Gionfriddo after reading “After Ashley.”
“She really has an ear for the dialogue of everyday Americans and the quirkiness of everyday Americans,” Mr. Balcer said, “the kind of people you see being interviewed on Nancy Grace.”
As it turns out, Mr. Balcer has hired a number of playwrights, many of them women. “I think women write crime better than men do,” he said. “Men tend to play it safe, relying on an old-boys’ network. Women feel freer. They swing for the bleachers.”
If her gender has been a boon on television crime dramas, it hasn’t helped in the New York theater world, in Ms. Gionfriddo’s view. She, along with dozens of other female playwrights, recently protested the relatively small number of plays by women that are produced in New York . Producers, directors and perhaps audiences, she said, seem much more willing to accept unappealing male characters than unappealing women.
In “Becky Shaw” there are plenty of unappealing characteristics to go around. Ms. Gionfriddo remembers the varying ways audience members at Humana reacted to the characters. Is Becky a victim or a manipulator? Is Andrew nurturing or annoying? Is Max brutally honest or just brutal? Ms. Gionfriddo found that often viewers’ romantic history was a guide to whom they considered good or bad.
The play is “a journey of moral discovery,” she said, and the characters are “people who are wrestling with their best and worst selves, and who keep lapsing into something they don’t want to be.”