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STAGE REVIEW

‘Becky Shaw’ skims surface of bad blind dates

A humorous look at the fallout

Wendy Hoopes plays Becky Shaw, who is set up on a disastrous blind date by Andrew, played by Eli James, and his wife. Wendy Hoopes plays Becky Shaw, who is set up on a disastrous blind date by Andrew, played by Eli James, and his wife. (T. Charles Erickson)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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There’s an uneasy undercurrent just below the sharply gleaming surface of Gina Gionfriddo’s social comedy, “Becky Shaw.’’ We laugh, and often, at the brutal truths and sly deceptions her characters sling at one another — but how hard can we really laugh if we have contemplated such cruelties ourselves?

Gionfriddo clearly enjoys creating that kind of uneasiness, and in director Peter DuBois she has a worthy collaborator. DuBois, who shepherded “Becky Shaw’’ from the 2008 Humana Festival to a successful off-Broadway run, now brings it to the Huntington Theatre Company in a polished production that shows off its pointed humor — but also, at times, reveals more surface allure than philosophical depth.

There’s nothing wrong with surface allure, of course, especially when it’s as amusingly packaged as Gionfriddo’s tale of a blind date gone hideously wrong, and the repercussions that date has both for its participants and for the recently married couple who set it up. But Gionfriddo also seems to want to explore some deeper moral questions — what we owe to our friends, to our families, and to ourselves — that don’t quite get the serious consideration they need to provoke us toward any new thoughts on such matters.

So maybe it’s best just to focus on the character who most fascinates us — not the titular Becky, who’s less of a loser than she at first seems but is never quite permitted to have a really persuasive interior life, but the condescending, emotionally stunted, manipulative man with whom she’s set up, a money manager named Max. Max says outrageous things, but he says them with utter conviction and without apology, and whenever he’s on the stage we can’t take our eyes off him.

That’s partly because of the committed, perfectly timed performance by Seth Fisher, who makes Max both repellent and irresistible. But it’s also because Gionfriddo gives him most of the best lines (almost all of them too laced with profanity to appear in print, and too rhythmically adept to be funny with the profanity excised, so you’ll have to take my word for it). Even when he’s being hateful, his creator makes sure that he’s being hateful with style.

That leaves his lifelong friend — a quasi-sister, really — and her new husband, the couple who arrange the date, looking relatively limp. Suzanna grew up with Max after his mother died and Suzanna’s parents took him in, and the relationship between the two of them is, to put it mildly, complex. In her opening scene with Max, Suzanna is a weird mix of fire and lukewarm tea; the tea seems to win out when she marries Andrew, a soft-spoken would-be writer. But Suzanna and Andrew are neither as soft nor as simple as they might appear.

This makes them potentially interesting, but also less riveting to watch than Max is — despite strong performances from Keira Naughton and Eli James. And whenever Max isn’t overshadowing them, Suzanna’s domineering mother, Susan, is. Any biting one-liners that didn’t work for Max have been given over to Susan, and Maureen Anderman spits them out with coldhearted glee.

But where does all this put Becky Shaw herself? Somewhat in the shade, unfortunately, and she remains something of a mystery as well. Some of the mystery works — it’s good that we don’t ever completely decide whether she’s grasping, fragile, or just a little lost — but some of it feels like an unintentionally vague characterization, either by Gionfriddo or by actress Wendy Hoopes. For a character who sets all the action of the play in motion, she’s just a little too opaque.

The Huntington gives “Becky Shaw’’ its usual glossy production, but in some ways that almost works against the grain of the play. An acute little comedy of manners doesn’t belong on a huge stage, with grand, high, wallpapered walls behind the action. Perhaps it’s this vastness that leads us to expect more from the show than a couple of hours of amusing commentary on human foibles. If we were left alone in a smaller room with these people, we could just feast on their absurdities without worrying about the nutritional value of the meal.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

BECKY SHAW Play by Gina Gionfriddo

Directed by: Peter DuBois. Set, Derek McLane. Costumes, Jeff Mahshie. Lights, David Weiner. Sound, Walter Trarbach.

Presented by: Huntington

Theatre Company.

At: Boston University Theatre, through April 4. Tickets, $20-82.50, 617-266-0800,

www.huntingtontheatre.org.

Video

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Behind the scenes at the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Becky Shaw." (Handout video)