Can You Forgive Her?: A 19th Century Modern Female
It’s like a twisted Halloween night version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolffstarring modern versions of the female leads of Vanity Fair. Just like it was in the mid-1800’s for Becky Sharp, money and debt are the big issues for the ladies in Can You Forgive Her?, the new dark comedy by two time Pulitzer finalist Gina Gionfriddo. A young woman, Miranda, spiraling out of financial control, has pissed off her weekend date, Sateesh (Eshan Bay). In a drunken jealous outburst, ‘the Indian’ as Miranda likes to refer to him, has threatened to kill her; stab her with the kitchen knives he bought her at the outlet mall. In search of a way out of her many predicaments, she finds shelter in the home of the charismatic Graham, who is also struggling to move forward in life. For him, it’s his mother’s death and what she has left behind that is getting in his way. For Miranda, it’s her debt and how she will unshackle herself from its grip.
Can You Forgive Her?, currently getting its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre is out to initiate a debate about women, their destinies, and financial freedom, much like Thackeray’s 1848 novel. The play begins, a bit too slowly, with Graham’s girlfriend, Tanya (a solid Ella Dershowitz), contemplating their future, but not seeing stability clearly. Graham has earlier proposed to Tanya, and she certainly has a plan for them moving forward. She desperately wants to stop making bad and rash choices in regards to love, sex, and marriage, as she has in her past. She is trying to decide if she should place her and her child’s future in her boyfriend’s hand and his prospects, like some 19th century damsel (it’s witty and fun seeing her Halloween costume at the start of the play; good job costume designer Jessica Pabst). But is he on board with the plan? Or just looking to press pause on his life and appease her.
Graham (Mad Men‘s Darren Pettie) on the other hand, is stuck living in his dead mother’s house having a hard time seeing a pathway beyond the boxes of her attempts at writing. He might not be Tanya’s best gamble to make, we think, but on that Halloween night, when decisions and plans are being pushed forward, in walks Miranda. Played with a wild child intoxicating energy by the superb Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Miranda is going to shake this shit up, and throw it all up in the air to see where the pieces fall. With the tremendous burden of debt hanging over her head, Miranda has turned to wealthy men to save her from herself. Can we forgive her for that? Or will we damn her for falling back into a 19th century old dynamic, in the same manner that Becky Sharp is damned in the much more clear and fun Vanity Fairadaptation over at the Pearl Theatre Company (that I just wrote about). Throw in Miranda’s sugar daddy, David, arriving late to the party, add a whole lot of scotch served up neat (but with glasses that don’t seem to empty all that quickly), and the gang of four are off to the races.
Gionfriddo (PH’s Rapture, Blister, Burn;Becky Shaw) assembles a complicated group of characters together with hopes that the alcohol and drama will erase some of the idiosyncrasies within the story. The script rides well and fast through the middle of the play, but stubbles at moments of transition and engagement. We are left scratching our heads in befuddlement as the drunken drama escalates, and the relationships slip further down the drain. When the rich sugar daddy David arrives, played with a stone cold quirkiness by the always interesting Frank Wood (Clybourne Park, LCT’s The Babylon Line), some much needed energy is infused in the cyclone that is swirling around that well designed box-strewn living room (set design: Allen Moyer; lighting design: Russell H. Champa; sound design: Daniel Kluger & Lee Kinney).
Can You Forgive Her? is about love, money, and commitment served up with too much alcohol and drama over a long night of secrets being revealed and truth telling, just like the foursome in that drunken-night drama by Edward Albee. A lot is about to come tumbling out from these characters, but does it ring true or is it merely convenient for the story? I had a hard time seeing the effects of alcohol on these lost souls though. Their glasses keep getting refilled, although rarely empty. Their voices sound as clear as when they arrived, although their actions become more and more reckless. When possible death comes knocking at the door though, all gloves come off and everyone’s eyes are wide open. Sadly, as directed by Peter DuBois (Sons of the Prophet), his focus seems a bit off especially during the final act. The actors are all doing their best finding the solid emotionality within the dynamics, but the view is never clear. The actors are left to fling themselves around in a drunken frenzy hoping it all makes sense in the end.
The title of this interesting new play comes from a novel by Anthony Trollope first published in serial form in 1864 and 1865. It follows three female-centric stories of courtship and marriage and the decisions made by the strong women at the center of these stories. One of the characters, a young female named Alice wonders, “What should a woman do with her life?’’ The idea that financial difficulties can limit options and distort choices, especially for women, is the dilemma faced by the female characters in Gionfriddo’s play, Trollope’s serial novel, and Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair. The two leads in Can We Forgive Her? grapple with each other and the men in their lives for the emotional and financial dependence they seek, fighting over the men to save or secure their destinies. The ending symbolizes a joining together as a team rather than the lopsided 19th Century set-up, but it feels a bit too tidy. With the amount of alcohol served up that Halloween night, and how the night panned out, the hangover these four should be feeling is not what we are seeing. That scotch must have been watered down a lot. Pour me a real drink now, and let’s see what really would happen.