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Becky Shaw offers honest, searingly funny look at relationships 

Doomed romances make spectacular theater at Actor's Express

"Just be yourself," newlywed Suzanna Slater (Jill Hames) advises the title character of Becky Shaw, just before Becky's blind date with her adopted brother, Max.

Suzanna's husband, Andrew (Tony Larkin), chimes in, "And as much as you can — don't show any weakness."

That might be good advice for a job interview or courtroom testimony, but it serves as a red, flashing warning sign for a first date. Becky and Max (Veronika Duerr and Andrew Benator) fall victim to some misguided matchmaking and prove spectacularly wrong for each other. Superlatively produced at Actor's Express, Becky Shaw delivers plenty of date-from-hell humor but contains more complex themes than you frequently find in theatrical romantic comedies. Playwright Gina Gionfriddo uses Becky Shaw to explore just how much responsibility we owe to other people, whether they're someone we grew up with, have just met or may never meet.

Gionfriddo lays plenty of groundwork before even introducing Becky Shaw. The play begins four months after the death of Suzanna's father. Max, a hard-charging financial planner, is trying to put the cash-strapped estate in order. It's unclear whether Suzanna's family legally adopted Max or simply raised him beginning when he was 10 years old, but Max is unmistakably the family "fixer," handling the messy situations. Max also lacks a capacity for emotional intimacy and even sneers at the concept. Director Freddie Ashley ingeniously casts Benator against type, instead of relying on a more stereotypically "macho" performer. Benator's forceful performance suggests that he's been wasted in nebbishy roles, and was born to play hypercompetitive David Mamet characters.

Brutally honest, Max urges Suzanna to quit mourning her father, go on a ski trip and otherwise take action in her life. Suzanna's trip turns into a whirlwind romance with her ski buddy Andrew and they have a quickie wedding. The playwright paints Andrew as more than just a liberal nice guy to contrast with Max's runaway testosterone. Andrew's sensitivity can manifest as a compulsion to help women in need, causing him to lose interest when they pull themselves together.

Act One ends with an extended, hilarious sequence with Becky walking in on some never-ending family strife. The scene could be a master class of acting and directing as all four characters send the room's dynamics in different directions. Duerr gives Becky the comedic sexiness of a young Terri Garr, and can turn simply sitting on a couch into a portrait of awkward self-consciousness. Although Becky comes across as a perpetual victim, the more serious second act implies she's more formidable than she first appears.

Gionfriddo seems to completely get these characters, as if she (and the audience) knows them in real life. But Suzanna's mother, Susan (Kathi Welch), proves to be the exception. The character, an icy matriarch suffering from multiple sclerosis, comes off more as a collection of tics and cruel aphorisms than a credible person, both as written and in performance. Welch's mannered hauteur feels like it belongs to another play entirely, like something by Tennessee Williams.

After an evening of truthful behaviors and unpredictable developments, the playwright results to some BS contrivances to get everyone on stage for the ending, as if trying to accomplish in one labored sequence what would be better served by two tighter ones. Becky Shaw's flaws only slightly diminish the play, which operates on a richer, deeper level of insight than even the usual, clever scripts staged by Atlanta's theaters. The characters' prickly qualities give them multiple dimensions.

Although Becky Shaw provides the play with its title and Max its high-octane fuel, Suzanna's development defines her as the main character. Hames isn't afraid to give her Hamlet-like gloom in the early scenes and abrasive aggressiveness later on, while still making the role likable and sympathetic. Suzanna's final resolve to stand up for herself reminded me of the delivery sequence of Knocked Up, when Seth Rogen finally grew up. But Becky Shaw suggests that no matter who takes responsibility, some families feed off drama.

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