By Samuel L. Leiter
Gina Gionfriddo’s dark comedy, Can You Forgive Her?, now at the Vineyard Theatre after premiering last year at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, takes its title from a 19th-century novel by Anthony Trollope. Directed in both productions by Peter Dubois, this slow-to-get-started piece, despite socially relevant thoughts couched in passably entertaining gambits, is structurally shaky and fraught with character and plot implausibilities; its most provocative feature is its title.
Graham (Darren Pettie), a feckless, heavy-drinking, twice-divorced 40-year-old, stopped working six months ago. That’s when his sad, long-divorced mother, with whom he had a strained relationship, died. A wannabe but unpublished writer, she left him not only her shabby home, valuable because of its proximity to the Jersey shore, but boxes and boxes of manuscripts—literary and autobiographical—which dominate a portion of the set. Graham has read enough to trash it (an opinion no one ever confirms). Yet the ho-hum question persists: to read or not to read.
Graham’s girlfriend, Tanya (Elsa Dershowitz), a single mom inspired by a self-help book she’s always touting, is far more determined to do something, both about her future (she’s a bartender hoping to become an accountant) and his (either renovate the house and rent it or return to his old job). Tanya won’t commit to marriage until he snaps out of his funk and takes positive action.
Set on Halloween, the fairly brief first scene suggests a conventional light romantic comedy with family implications. In scene two, which occupies the rest of this hour and 35-minute play, we move into quirkier territory when we find Graham alone at 1 a.m. with 28-year-old hottie Miranda (TV/film actress Amber Tamblyn in her stage debut), dressed for the holiday as a sexy witch. Looks prove deceiving; she’s actually a self-hating neurotic, a former teacher who nearly got her Ph.D. in poetry (yeah, right); she strongly defends using her sexual allure to survive while rejecting the label of prostitute. It’s just one stretch among many.
Graham, at Tanya’s suggestion, has brought Miranda home after an altercation at Tanya’s bar between Miranda and her date, Sateesh (Eshan Bay), a young Indian immigrant she’s been dating but not sleeping with, who drove her from New York to the local festival. The well-educated but racially narrow-minded Miranda, who calls Sateesh “the Indian,” needs to hide; she’s somehow convinced Sateesh is a potential murderer. The dubious background for all this is recounted in a shaggy-dog exposition.
Meanwhile, we learn of Miranda’s relationship with David (Frank Wood), a sugar daddy she met online, who’s also nearby (which is what got Sateesh riled up). When David, a wealthy, married, plastic surgeon, eventually arrives, comedy blends with farce as the characters grapple with financial and personal issues.
The action basically stops as Gionfriddo moves into discussion mode regarding women’s choices, responsibility, and agency within the construct of the American dream. The essential contrast is between Miranda’s irresponsible decisions (like choosing a “ritzy” private college), which forced her into so much debt she needed to become a rich man’s mistress, and the more practical thinking of the micromanaging Tanya, who overcame bad choices to become debt-free.
We also have to wade through the emotional morass of Miranda and David’s unique relationship—he accepts her abuse because she’s the only one who can make him feel anything—and wonder whether the desperate Miranda will, instead, turn for love to Graham. Finally, we return to the burning question of the damned boxes: throw them out or read what’s in them? As if we still care.
Can You Forgive Her? too often bogs down in exposition, has a ludicrous premise for why Miranda opens up to Graham, makes Miranda both insightful and clueless, and, among other things, takes forever for us to care about the stakes, if we ever do.
Allen Moyer’s living room set, nicely lit (including several surreal effects) by Russell H. Champa, suggests that Graham’s mother’s decorating tastes were as poor as her writing. Jessica Pabst’s costumes help characterize the people who wear them; Miranda’s little black outfit is a knockout.
Amber Tamblyn ensures that the flamboyant Miranda catches our eye, with her constant hair tossing and glam poses, while Ella Dershowitz (Alan’s daughter, in case you’re wondering) is believably persistent in making her points. Although his presence is nicely grounded, nothing about Darren Pettie’s Graham suggests a man afraid of dealing with life, but veteran Frank Wood brings an amusing comic edge to David.
Why David comes all the way downstage to deliver some of his lines as if talking to—not through—the fourth wall, while blocking those behind him, is puzzling. When Sateesh does the same thing, we know it’s director Peter Dubois who’s to blame. And, like several other things on view, it’s not easy to forgive.
Can You Forgive Her?
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through June 11
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).