Gina Gionfriddo’s would-be black comedy about the American worship of money and status is a misfire on all levels.
Can You Forgive Her? by Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Peter DuBois. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through April 24.
By Bill Marx
Don Aucoin, the Boston Globe’s ever-sunny theater critic, assures us that locked somewhere in the “ramshackle structure” of Gina Gionfriddo’s Can You Forgive Her? there’s a good play. But he never tells us where it is hiding – probably because, once again, he has been bamboozled by the rose-colored glasses that have been strapped (perhaps by the newspaper’s editors? the theatrical powers-that-be?) over his eyes. Gionfriddo’s would-be black comedy about the American worship of money and status is a misfire on all levels, but not because it doesn’t fit together. The piece is dramatically inert, a talky, tiresome, and didactic exercise that reassures well-heeled audiences about the virtues of those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stick to the straight-and-narrow. Stumble off the sponsored highway of faux-Emersonian self-reliance and the consequences are dire: depression and despair, hot sex and prostitution, drugs and alcohol, conspicuous consumption, and crippling mountains of debt. Beware — outside of the pages of self-help books the world is a mean place.
The key word in Gionfriddo’s script is debt. Two couples are struggling to determine what they owe themselves and their significant others. (American plays rarely deal with what we owe to society – individualism rules.) On the side of blatant dissolution is 28-year-old Miranda, who in order to go to a good school and live the glamorous life owes the banks around $200,000. She is paying it off through prostitution; her main sugar daddy is an older man, David, a married conservative who has made a big bundle as a plastic surgeon but is emotionally estranged from his family (his wife is post-sexual) and life in general. The robotic David (hey, he’s a Republican!) pays off his debt to humanity by contributing to a charity that fixes cleft palates among the underprivileged. The mis-matched pair spend most of its time analyzing and baiting each other — they yearn for love, but won’t risk changing a profitable status quo.
One of Miranda’s dates threatens her at a bar and she fears that he is hunting her down. (Screenwriting 101: generate cheap suspense by posing a mortal threat to characters.) But Miranda doesn’t go to the police; she chooses to hide out in the New Jersey home of Graham, who has just proposed to 27-year-old Tanya, a waitress at the bar. He is living in his recently deceased mother’s home and his debt is absurdly obvious: there’s a pile of mom’s writings, all about her unhappy divorce, in the living room. A fearful Graham refuses to read through the stuff (which we are told is dreadful), but that is the price, argues Tanya, that must be paid for success — deal with those bad memories and then get a livelihood by fixing up the decaying manse. Tanya is struggling to overcome a bad marriage to a druggie and she is doing the right things — paying off her debt the honorable way, raising her child with all due concern. What little dramatic conflict there is revolves around Graham: will he confront his demons as Tanya demands and read his mother’s dreck? Or will he take up the invitation of the sexpot Miranda and go back to the old days of booze, nomadic existence, fast money, cheap thrills, etc. Only in contemporary American theater does the latter choice barely stand a chance.
That is pretty much it. We are supposed to laugh at the selfish Miranda, a neurotic floozy in a little black dress, a gold digger burying herself under mounds of self-hatred and self-disgust. And chuckle at the mechanical insensitivity of David. Given all the exotic forms of venality out there (think of The Wolf of Wall Street) these wan cartoons are not particularly interesting or exhilarating, and Gionfriddo isn’t skilled enough a dramatist to turn pathetic confessions into illuminating amusement. She telegraphs her disdain for the pair to make sure we get the point — money is tossed in Miranda’s face! As for Tanya, there is some fun poked at her gung-ho conventionality, but she is the beacon of puritanical sanity in this play — will Graham take the high road or the low road? Who cares!
Politically speaking, only the undemanding (Boston’s critics) will find Can You Forgive Her? to be a cutting satire. Men and women are weighted down by obligations, enslaved to consumerism and exploitation, mired in memories of a dysfunctional upbringing. But the script plays it safe by condemning narcissism and sidestepping the hard targets. One doesn’t have to be a supporter of Bernie Sanders or a rabid socialist to suspect (strongly) the economic system is rigged by and for the well-to-do. But social inequalities are not examined here — these characters victimize themselves, coming up short when it comes to strength of character. (Miranda should have chosen a community college.) The audience members are invited to laugh at and then patronize these sad sacks. Ironically, some of the rich do quite well for themselves by selling the up-by-your-bootstraps, psychobabble guff Tanya swears by. Gionfriddo now and again gently deflates Tanya’s platitudes, but the DIY message is clear.
In the Huntington Theatre Company production, directed by Peter DuBois, the performers strike attitudes and then stick to them. Meredith Forlenza doesn’t even try to play against Miranda’s irritating shrillness, while Allyn Burrows provides a few notes of wry comedy as the heart-of-stone David. Chris Henry Coffey’s Graham seems to be just into himself; the character doesn’t appear to be all that concerned about his attraction to two women. Tanya Fischer’s Tanya looks disengaged throughout the production, as if she is impatient with the fools that have been foisted on her. The living room stage/kitchen is barely made use of — for some reason DuBois plants the performers in a spot and lets them alternately vogue and yak, vogue and yak, which only emphasizes the show’s numerous longueurs.
I am not panicking, but the last two world premieres from the Huntington Theatre Company have not just been uninspiring but downright disheartening. Granted, the lame social comedy of Can You Forgive Her? isn’t in the same cosmic head-scratching league as Winnie Holzman’s Choice, whose ‘controversial’ conceit had something to do with the reincarnated spirits of aborted babies. But, given the considerable talent and resources of this major regional theater troupe, it is baffling that the new scripts chosen for full production have been so clumsy and awkward, so dead-on-arrival, theatrically speaking. Of course, critical forgiveness will come — if some genuinely accomplished or promising scripts appear soon.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.