BECKY SHAW playwright Gina Gionfriddo loves tackling dark subjects in humorous ways. “I think this play, as with my other plays… they’re funny but they’re dark-funny,” she says. “You see the audience trying to figure out if they have permission to laugh or not. Once they give over to it—that they’re laughing at stuff that’s dark—then they’re taken for a ride.”
After deciding that acting was not her forte, Gionfriddo began studying playwrighting at Brown University under Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel. There, her penchant for dark humor emerged in the play U.S. DRAG, about college graduates who refuse to work entry-level jobs, and instead decide to hunt down a serial killer to earn a $100,000 reward. Despite a successful reception, U.S. DRAG was not frequently produced after its initial iteration (as Gionfriddo herself posits, the violent subject matter felt ill-timed on the heels of September 11th). In response to the attacks, Gionfriddo penned AFTER ASHLEY (2004), which satirizes how the media sensationalizes tragedy and portrays grief as beautiful. Underneath the comedy of the play is a plea from characters in pain to be understood rather than gawked at for entertainment’s sake.
AFTER ASHLEY caught the attention of “Law & Order” showrunner Rene Alcer, who invited Gionfriddo to write for “Law & Order” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” After her violent early plays, Gionfriddo found herself at home in the world of crime portrayed on these shows. “When I was in high school, other people were reading romance novels; I was reading the Ted Bundy books,” she said. Law & Order allowed her to dig even deeper into her dark side as a writer. However, she found the tight 45-minute time frame of each episode constricting—there was enough room to cover a fast-paced plot, but insufficient time for character development.
With BECKY SHAW, Gionfriddo was able to dig deep into character in a way that TV writing does not allow. She got the idea for the play while reading an interview with Mira Nair, who directed the 2004 film “Vanity Fair,” starring Reese Witherspoon and based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel of the same title. In the interview, Nair said she was nervous about how Americans would receive the film, as she believed social class to be a taboo subject for them. Gionfriddo agreed with Nair, stating, “I feel we’re so squeamish about class in this country—it’s more taboo than sexuality.” Thus, BECKY SHAW emerged as a contemporary riff on “Vanity Fair,” focusing on “the moment at which your Salvation Army-outfitted apartment stops being cool and starts being something you’re ashamed of.” The title character is meant to evoke the novel’s heroine, Becky Sharpe; both Beckys are social climbers, who Gionfriddo says “make people uncomfortable by being so incredibly direct.”
In many ways, BECKY SHAW represents a turning point in Gionfriddo’s writing. While crime is a part of the story, the driving force of the play is the characters—particularly the women—wanting more out of life. Her 2013 play RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN shows several women of different generations looking at the history of feminism and contemplating the possibility of “having it all.” Her 2016 play CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? (which was also inspired by a Victorian novel of the same title by Anthony Trollope) presents two women struggling for financial security in different ways. As always with Gionfriddo’s writing, these two pieces are filled with enough witty remarks and snarky jabs to keep their audiences laughing the whole night through, but the shock value attained in her early plays has been traded in for a deeper exploration of character.
Gionfriddo’s plays all manage to make their serious subjects—class, gender, grief, and violence, for starters—darkly funny. But for her, humor exists as an entry point into exploring these daring subjects, rather than the other way around. Her voice is one of a kind—always entertaining, but yearning to make a critical point about the contemporary world. “I feel a play has to say something important, or really shift an audience’s consciousness in some important way,” she says, “There’s so much great film and TV available in my apartment, so I bring very high expectations to theatre. More and more I regard plays as the place you go to hear some truth or ask some question that film and TV can’t or won’t give you.”
by Danny Kapinos, 2017
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