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As the characters in Gina Gionfriddo’s new play learn repeatedly, life offers many choices. Many of the decisions we make are based on either emotional or financial needs, and both are primary forces in Can You Forgive Her? Unfortunately, this dark comedy — its title inspired by an Anthony Trollope novel — proves far too inconsequential to justify spending time with its mostly unlikable, weightless characters.
The talented playwright — a two-time Pulitzer finalist for Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister Burn — flounders with this effort that debuted at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company and is now receiving its New York City premiere at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. Set on a Halloween night — for little discernible reason other than providing the opportunity for one of the characters to dress as a serving wench — the play depicts the interactions among several troubled characters.
They include 40-year-old Graham (Darren Pettie), temporarily living in the rundown Jersey shore home of his recently deceased mother; his 27-year-old girlfriend Tanya (Ella Dershowitz), struggling to make ends meet as a bartender and to raise the young daughter she conceived with her former drug-using husband who told her that he “only did heroin at parties”; 28-year-old Miranda (Amber Tamblyn), who Tanya sends to Graham’s house for safety after she’s violently threatened by an Indian man she’s been dating; and David (Frank Wood), the much older businessman with whom Miranda has a “sugar daddy” relationship.
Each of them has … issues. Graham finds himself unable to overcome his inertia, bogged down by the dozens of boxes of his late mother’s writings, including 46 datebooks, which he feels compelled to read. Tanya, who dreamed of a career as a TV newscaster, desperately wants him to accept adult responsibilities before she’ll marry him. Miranda, deeply in debt, has a greater emotional attachment to David than she lets on. And David, who still lives with his “post-sexual” wife, proves incapable of relating to emotions, either his or anyone else’s. Ironically, when the young Indian man, Sateesh (Eshan Bay), finally shows up at Graham’s house with large knife in hand, he turns out to be the most normal and well-adjusted of the bunch.
The play, sluggishly directed by Peter DuBois, sporadically succeeds in showcasing Gionfriddo’s talent for pungent dialogue, such as when the acerbic Miranda refers to Graham as “a guy who lives in his dead mother’s house so he can keep smelling his childhood.” But it meanders for far too much of its brief but seemingly interminable running time, and you can feel the playwright straining to make her characters reflect larger themes about the financial aspects of relationships. As a result, little of what transpires feels remotely believable, such as Tanya safeguarding the sexy Miranda, whom she just met, in her boyfriend’s home, or her blase reaction when she comes upon Graham and Miranda engaging in a sexy slow dance.
Pettie and Dershowitz struggle to bring life to their dully earnest characters, but the charismatic Tamblyn (making her New York stage debut) provides much needed sparks as the acerbic Miranda and Tony Award-winner Wood (Side Man) garners consistent laughs with his droll underplaying of his character’s off-kilter, deadpan reactions to the others’ predicaments. Their efforts are probably not enough, however, to prevent theatergoers from wishing they had made the life choice of seeing a different play.
Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York
Cast: Ella Dershowitz, Darren Pettie, Amber Tamblyn, Frank Wood, Eshan Bay
Playwright: Gina Gionfriddo
Director: Peter DuBois
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Jessica Pabsst
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Sound designers: Daniel Kluger, Lee Kinney
Presented by Vineyard Theatre
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