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Theatre in Review: Can You Forgive Her? (Vineyard Theatre)/Building the Wall (New World Stages)

Top: Ella Dershowtiz, Darren Pettie. Bottom: James Badge Dale, Tamara Tunie. Photos: Carol Rosegg.

Two of our better playwrights have come a cropper in the last week or so in plays that attempt to make sense of this unhinged American moment. In works like After Ashley, Becky Shaw, and Rapture Blister, Burn, Gina Gionfriddo has honed an acidly comic voice that scours away any bit of hypocrisy and trendy thinking. This time out, she trains her sights on America's downwardly mobile middle class. The title, Can You Forgive Her?, alludes to Anthony Trollope, that indispensable guide to Victorian marriage as a financial institution, and its leading ladies are experiencing very twenty-first-century romantic and fiscal challenges. Even so, they can no more separate love from money than can any of Trollope's heroines.

For example, there's Tanya, who, by her own admission, makes bad choices. How bad? Her last serious boyfriend told her that he only did heroin at parties. "And all my friends said there's no such thing as a casual heroin user. But of course I didn't listen." Now she has an addict for an ex and a little girl to raise -- and, having glommed onto a Suze Orman-style guide to finance for women -- is bound and determined to better her lot. (Since she is currently tending bar in a Jersey beach town, she has nowhere to go but up.) As the play begins, her current boyfriend, Graham, is proposing marriage, but she casts a cold eye on his offer. Graham, who is on leave from a lucrative job opening bars across the American West, remains, six months after his mother's death, stuck in the family beach shack, unable to go through boxes and boxes of her papers. (Mom, who worked as a nurse, was a novelist and poet manqué, and Graham feels a kind of moral mandate to read each and every one of her unpublishable works; that he can't complete the task tells you all you need to know.) Currently without a paycheck and unable to deal with his mother's legacy, Graham is, according to Tanya, a PWP -- a partner without prospects.

No sooner has Tanya bucked up the feckless Graham with a variety of possible plans -- ranging from home renovation to going into the frozen yogurt business -- in barges Miranda, a professional gold digger who is worried that she is losing her touch. She has come to the Jersey shore in the company of Sateesh, an Indian IT specialist, stopping along the way at a mall, where she has allowed him to buy her a number of pretty things, including a Coach bag. The romance sours when Sateesh realizes that Miranda is bent on stalking David, her regular meal ticket, who has come to spend the weekend with a female friend.

When things turn ugly, Tanya offers sanctuary to Miranda, leaving her with Graham. In her outrageous self-interest, Miranda would seem to be an ideal Gionfriddo character, but what follows is the dullest stretch to be found in any of her plays, in which Miranda and Graham trade the stories of their childhoods. The dialogue has the hard, bright quality that marks it as the playwright's work, but the details are largely dreary, dealing as they do with absent fathers and incompetent, needy mothers. "Sad mother is a deep, deep wound. You know what's even sadder? Indifference," says Miranda, sounding rather like a pop psychology text herself.

The trouble in part may have to do with Amber Tamblyn's performance as Miranda. The actress has plenty of brassy attitude to go along with the six-figure debt that keeps Miranda on the hunt for sugar daddies. She makes the most of her good lines, for example, explaining of the clueless David, "That's the look he gets when he's trying to comprehend feelings he doesn't have. It's the look Frankenstein gets when the kid gives him the flower." She also has an amusing bit in which, adopting a sex-kitten voice, she leaves a message on David's voicemail, casually letting him know that a vengeful young man, armed with a set of knives (purchased during that mall shopping spree) may be tracking him down. But Tamblyn, who has spent most of her career in television, needs to work on her voice; she navigates the play's lengthy exposition on a single strident note that eventually becomes wearing.

Things pick up as the grittily determined, score-keeping Tanya and the "emotional cipher" David join the fray, allowing Gionfriddo to spin out some of her trademark caustic conversation. She has plenty of wicked fun with The Smile Train, the charity to which David, a plastic surgeon, is devoted. (He spends a couple of weeks each year operating on the poor around the world.) As Miranda, in a moment of extreme exasperation, notes, "You meet new people and you don't listen to them. You don't hear a word they say because your brain is too busy plotting how to change the subject to The Smile Train."

There are other memorable moments, including David's comment, which infuriates Miranda, that "A liberal arts degree is the privilege of a rich man's daughter," but too much of the time Can You Forgive Her? feels rather flat and rudderless, a series of confrontations in search of a cogent theme. Peter DuBois' slick direction helps, as do the adept performances of Ella Dershowitz as Tanya and Darren Pettie as Graham. As David, who, narrowing his eyes, struggles to understand what all the fuss is about, Frank Wood raises incomprehension to high comedy. Other plus factors are Allen Moyer's lovingly detailed beach house interior, Russell H. Champa's solid lighting, Jessica Pabst's costumes (including an amusing Halloween wench get-up for Tanya), and the sound design, by Daniel Kluger and Lee Kinney, which makes good use of several cuts from The Mamas and the Papas. Still, this is Gionfriddo's weakest offering to date.

In plays like The Kentucky Cycle and All the Way, Robert Schenkkan has proved to be one of the theatre's most astute commentators on American history. When it comes to imagining the dystopian future, however, he's not so hot. Building the Wall is set in 2019: The good news is that Donald Trump has been impeached; the bad news is that some sort of disaster was the catalyst. Gloria, a lawyer, has come to a prison in Texas to get the testimony of Rick, who was behind the terrible events, the revelation of which is the main purpose of Schenkkan's script. Rick, a good old boy type, is at first nonplussed by being interviewed by a successful black woman, and, for the first twenty minutes or so, watching these two warily circle each other provides some good, crackling fun.

Then we get into Rick's story. A veteran of the wars in the Middle East, he returned to the US and became a manager at a for-profit prison. Following a terrorist attack -- we are told that Times Square was "irradiated" -- the Trump administration started rounding up suspects in bulk. The population of Rick's prison swelled to the point where it was impossible to sort out the career criminals from the political suspects. Soon the overflow is being contained in FEMA trailers at a nearby stadium. When such measures are not enough, Rick comes up with a final solution. I have not chosen those last words lightly.

James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie, solid pros both, do their very best as Rick and Gloria, and in the passages detailing the kind of populist rage felt by white men like Rick, Building the Wall seems right on target. But Schenkkan's play, written no doubt in good faith following the shock of Trump's election, is a hysterical, not to say irresponsible, piece of work. In the early days after the election, many feared that we were in the middle of a Fascist takeover, but a glance at the daily papers reveals that the national narrative has not become an Upton Sinclair nightmare but rather a Kaufman and Hart farce. That's not to say we don't live in a time of peril -- but that the nature of the peril comes not from the canny use of power but rather the consequences of amateurs trying to wing it. In any case, it's time for liberals to stop trying to scare themselves with Nazi fantasies that are really a kind of cloak for self-congratulation.

Ari Edelson's direction is pretty snappy, given the circumstances, although he doesn't shy away from the script's heavy solemnity. Antje Ellermann's setting is, correctly, both a little overbearing and claustrophobic. Tyler Micoleau's lighting persuasively apes the look of institutional units without being overly oppressive. Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes and Bart Fasbender's sound design are both fine.

The best thing you can say about Building the Wall is that it is sincere. But what we really need to explain our current political reality is another Billy Wilder, or perhaps the Marx Brothers, not the kind of Rod Serling scare tactics on offer here. -- David Barbour

(31 May 2017)

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