In 2008, playwright Gina Gionfriddo played with William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and its devious leading lady, Becky Sharp. The result was the overrated Becky Shaw, directed by her frequent collaborator, Peter DuBois. She apparently believes that classic 19th-century novels have much to tell us about how people behave. (Why wouldn’t they, since basic human behavior doesn’t alter from one century from another?) So now, Gionfriddo has plucked from the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her?
Not bothering to change the title this time, she trots out her own Trollope-influenced work, her own Can You Forgive Her?, now running Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. Unfortunately, by retaining that questioning title, she raises the possibility that Can You Forgive Her? can be taken as her own query to audience members — for how willing they are to absolve her of this inaccessible script.
On the confirmed belief that to err is human, to forgive divine, I can easily forgive her. Nonetheless, I have to add that whereas Becky Shaw may have been overrated, Can You Forgive Her? hardly calls for any rating. It earns polite dismissal with a sincere wish for better luck next time.
What goes on? When Russell H. Champa’s lights rise on Allen Moyer’s representation of a modestly appointed New Jersey beach home, Tanya (Ella Dershowitz) is returning from her bar job in a colonial costume. It’s Halloween, but it looks as if she’s regularly required to climb into the get-up, and to apply rouge circles to her cheeks.
Tanya is determined to confront her boyfriend, Graham (Darren Pettie). She loves him, just as he loves her, but she’s also decided that she can’t accept his marriage proposal. Graham interrupts the carefully written speech she’s given, but she still makes the point that as a single mother raising an unseen daughter, she wants to marry a man with money and a career, not a twice-divorced, unemployed man.
Actually, Graham does have a job. The problem is that he’s left it, perhaps temporarily, in order to sell the house of his recently deceased mother, where awaiting him are boxes of papers to go through, on which he’s made no progress.
So Gionfriddo assigns her first scene to Tanya’s demand that Graham tackle the papers and renovate the property in preparation for either selling it or turning it into a guesthouse. Graham, still intent on getting Tanya to marry him — or even to live with him — says he’ll do as she wants. She may believe him as the scene ends, but we don’t.
When the second scene begins, it’s later on Halloween and Graham is entering that house with Miranda (Amber Tamblyn), looking sexy in Victoria’s Secret black. She explains that she’s in costume — a sexy witch. While clearly putting the moves on Graham and denying that she’s a hooker, she gabs all about raising the ire of a man who we meet much later — Sateesh (Eshan Bay), who she brought down to the Jersey shore with her and who is now in possession of a set of her knives that were left in his car.
Is anyone getting this? Tanya appears, catching Miranda and Graham dancing close, but only briefly is she riled. Filthy rich David (Frank Wood) then knocks on the door. He’s another man that Miranda has hooked into supporting her financially, though in his case he’s still married to his understanding wife.
As these four characters badger each other — and drink themselves into blurred booziness — everything they say seems calculated to get someone else’s goat. Then there’s the worry that Sateesh will figure out where Miranda is and attack her with those knives.
Does he? That’s for me to know and you to find out. Also know that as DuBois directs this contentious foursome like bibulous chess pieces, the dialogue — covering bad mothers, costumes, divorces, and what does and doesn’t constitute prostitution — makes little sense and becomes increasingly tiresome before the denouement ascends (descends?) after 95 or so attenuated minutes. It’s a more benign finale than I think Gionfriddo intended, but who’s going to argue with a happy ending? If that’s what it is.
But whereas such palaver may not make sense to most audience members, perhaps some subscribers to the Vineyard are ardent Trollope fans. If so, they’ll know that Trollope’s opening Palliser opus concerns three women and the men with whom they’re inclined to make what the Brits would call misalliances. Gionfriddo trims the sprawling Trollope plot to two matches not necessarily made in heaven but, all the same, she’s intent on honoring her industrious predecessor by attracting Tanya to one poor bloke and by dangling a well-heeled one in front of Miranda.
The play, however, is still a Trollope travesty. When material is so unmoored, audiences may wonder if the actors suspect that what they’re saying and doing is as bad as it is. I may be wrong about this, but I thought the performances were not so much over-the-top as misshapen, the result of a shared attempt to make their individual and collective assignments more palatable or understandable.
As for the all-too-visible lapse of director DuBois — whose day job is serving as artistic director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, where Can You Forgive Her? debuted — his loyalty to the playwright is understandable but not really acceptable. If this is vanity, it’s unfair.