Reviewed by George Basler

The play Becky Shaw opened this past weekend(Feb.  9-11)  five days before Valentine’s Day at KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton. While this is probably coincidental, it’s fitting, because the play focuses on the dating scene and the sometimes tumultuous relationships between men and women.

Don’t expect a Hallmark movie with hearts and flowers. The play by Gina Gionfriddo, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a darkly comic look at interactions between edgy and complicated characters. It’s filled with twists and turns designed to keep audiences off balance and features characters whose flaws are glaringly apparent.

The KNOW production, which runs weekends through Feb. 25, has a lot going for it. Director Samantha Rose effectively guided the five talented actors who perform the play’s multi-dimensional characters with great assurance.

Becky Shaw is an enigmatic play rife with the foibles of relationships. This may be off-putting to some, but Gionfriddo keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. She also writes razor-sharp dialogue that is both realistic and humorous. You may not like her characters, but they certainly grab your attention.

The plot sounds simple. A newly married couple, Suzanna and Andrew (Anna Tagliaferro and Josh Schull), set up one of the husband’s co-workers, Becky (Amelia Pena), on a blind date with a successful financial partner, Max (Jeff Tagliaferro), whom Suzanna’s parents adopted years earlier.

But nothing in Becky Shaw is simple. The date goes horribly wrong when the couple are robbed at gunpoint. The fallout from the mugging leads to a confrontation between Becky, who wants to keep their relationship going, and the emotionally disengaged Max, who wants out. This, in turn, puts a strain on Suzanna and Andrew’s marriage.

Other plot lines abound as well. Max is reluctantly working to salvage the finances of Suzanna’s mother (Lynette Daniels), who has been left monetarily strapped by her late husband. Suzanna is still grieving over her father’s death and is revolted that her mother has moved on to another boyfriend. Becky is totally adrift financially and emotionally. Suzanne and Max seem to have some simmering sexual attraction to each other.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, but Gionfriddo does it effectively, although keeping track of all the characters’ angst is a bit wearying at times.

None of the characters are black or white. Max is self-centered and smug. But, as played by Tagliaferro, he is understandable. Tagliaferro skillfully draws laughs as he spouts some of Max’s most pointed barbs. He also hints at why the character is so emotionally constrained. (For starters, his father abandoned him.)

Becky starts off as a deeply sympathetic character. But, as the play progresses, her claws begin to show. She is both vulnerable and cunningly manipulative in her relationship with Max. Pena plays both aspects well.

Josh Schull gives a well-modulated performance as Suzanna’s husband, Andrew, who is the direct opposite of Max. While Max is closed off emotionally, Andrew is idealistic and open to others. His Achilles heel is that he seems to glory in his sensitivity. That trait nearly ruins his marriage. Gionfriddo seems to make the provocative point that too much empathy can be as self-destructive as not enough.

Anna Tagliaferro is striking as Suzanna. The character’s upbringing has left her with deep psychological wounds. One minute she’s charming and loving, the next she’s angrily hurling invective insults at those around her. Tagliaferro does a good job making the abrupt transitions believable.

One source of Suzanna’s wounds is clearly her mother, Susan, played with great patrician hauteur by Daniels. On one level, the character has a steely strength (she’s battling multiple sclerosis). On another level, she’s a bitter woman whose marriage was strictly transactional. When her daughter voices concerns about her own marriage, Susan warns her against expecting the whole truth from her husband. Absolute honesty in a relationship, she cautions, “is a prescription for misery.”

Is the character giving cynical or truthful advice?  Gionfriddo leaves it up to audience members to decide, but it’s certain that the advice won’t be on any Hallmark card.

Becky Shaw is filled with similar ambiguities as it deals with issues of power and manipulation in relationships. The KNOW production is an intriguing one, for sure. It’s in keeping with KNOW’s tradition of offering strong acting in provocative plays.

IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre is presenting Becky Shaw weekends through Feb. 25 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets at $25 (seniors, $20; students, $15) can be ordered through KNOW’s website, There is a pay-what-you can performance at 8 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 15).