Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. Only make it the phosphorus kind. That's what playwright Gina Gionfriddo does in her highly flammable comedy of no-manners
which played to acclaim Off-Broadway last year and opened Wednesday in a sizzling production at the Wilma Theater.
The crux of the show is a setup, literally: A newly married couple fixes up an incongruous pair for a blind date, which leads to big complications for all four. But that's like describing Joan of Arc as a play about an excitable woman in old France or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as a look at two couples who stay up late and talk. In every case, the tale is so much more wildly intense.
In Becky Shaw, it's also wickedly funny, or sometimes just funny. And sometimes just wicked. Gionfriddo is a master manipulator - both of her characters, all of whom are on the edge of extreme, and her audience, which she leads to that edge. Her characters generate sparks; in Gionfriddo's portfolio of dialogue devices, glib is a net asset.
I don't know what it says about the Wilma's production that the playwright has been a writer and producer of Law and Order, and that all five cast members have, at some point, appeared on the TV show. Maybe it serves as a school for theatrical severity.
Under Anne Kauffman's direction, every detail at the Wilma is nailed meticulously in place. That includes not only the performances, but also Mimi Lien's ingenious revolving set, which begins with bare walls and progresses to fully decorated rooms for bared souls; Thom Weaver's lighting, which perfectly mirrors the play's mood swings; and Christopher Colucci's subtly uplifting sound design.
The whole thing begins with Suzanna (Danielle Skraastad, mining her character's complications like a '49er) as she mourns the loss of her double-dealing dad.
Her adopted brother, Max (a wonderfully insufferable turn by Jeremy Bobb), is an equal mix of flinty, funny, and snotty; he's the money manager of the family's dwindling estate, and his sister's savior and bane. "Your parents complement each other," he tells her, as if he had no personal connection to his family. "Your father denied problems, your mother rubbed your face in them."
The mother is played with unstinting dismissive virtuosity by Janis Dardaris, who originated the role in Becky Shaw's Louisville premiere. Mom has a terminal condition, a drinking problem, and a young, disreputable (and offstage) lover.
The other characters are the pathetic Becky Shaw (Brooke Bloom, a study in wretched intensity), whom Suzanna fixes up with her brother, and Suzanna's quick-fix solution to all her problems: a failed writer with feelings who is her sudden husband (Armando Riesco, in a calculated portrayal of a nurturer).
On paper, these characters are an encyclopedia of exasperation, and I'll bet the script of Becky Shaw is not a ha-ha read. But blow stage life into them, and even their dark lamentations are funny. It's all in Gionfriddo's vision and the way she maneuvers it, and in the high bar this production sets, then reaches.
Through Jan. 31 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $36-$65. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.