By Stanford Friedman
Two-thirds of the way through Gina Gionfriddo’s 2016 dramedy, Can You Forgive Her?, the excellent character actor Frank Wood turns up as David, a slightly sociopathic plastic surgeon. If only his character had been around earlier, to perform an emergency nip and tuck on the scene that precedes his entrance, this would have been a breezy 75 minutes of off-beat fun. But, a 20 minute expository back-and-forth between its two leads bogs down the proceedings proving, yet again, that less is always more.
This tale of bad romance and questionable financial planning is set in a dead woman’s house on Halloween. And yes, there is a knife and an axe and a masked stranger, but Gionfriddo is not so much concerned with physical threats as she is with intellectual and socioeconomic ones. Graham (Darren Pettie) has come to take over his deceased mother’s New Jersey beach house. A bit of a slacker, he has become hopelessly stalled by having to deal with boxes of his mom’s failed writings (“Papers instead of books,” he observes, in a moment of biting assessment.). His overly sensible bartender girlfriend, Tanya (Ella Dershowitz), advises him to get on the ball or she’s outta there.
Fast-forward to later in the evening, Miranda (Amber Tamblyn) enters the mix as a temptress in a “sexy witch” costume whom Graham brings home from Tanya’s bar to protect her from the evils she has brought upon herself. If that seems like a bit of a leap, the playwright must have thought so as well, thus the lengthy Graham and Miranda scene featuring extensive explanations of her past, complicated musings of how a gal like her amasses large amounts of student and emotional debt, and her own mother issues. Indeed, the Her of the play’s title appears to mostly be referencing their dear mums.
A high tide raises all ships and Mr. Wood brings a wave of fresh energy through the door when he arrives as Miranda’s potential savior or lover or sugar daddy. Miranda points to his cold inability to empathize even as he flails at conversing with Graham. Meanwhile, Tanya takes Miranda to task for living beyond her means. It’s nearly 3:00 in the morning, everyone is drunk or exhausted, and it is here that director Peter DuBois finds the play’s pulse, exploring the kooky energy of a group of lovers and strangers at odds with each other and the life choices that have gotten them to this point.
Tanya is a planner and not a schemer, while Miranda is a schemer but not a planner. Graham is at a point where he needs to choose between the two, the lady or the tigress. Veteran costumer Jessica Pabst is perhaps too on the nose, dressing Miranda in black, Tanya in white and Graham in gray, but the actors all find their moments of subtlety. Ms. Tamblyn, making her Off-Broadway debut in the same month as her film directorial debut, is no stranger to finding herself in unusual encounters (see Joan of Arcadia) and here she gets to deliver the work’s funniest lines with appropriate understatement. Mr. Pettie keeps Graham on a low simmer until his childhood catches up with him in an explosive moment, and Ms. Dershowitz’s brings a dark humor to Tanya’s strict optimism and survivor instincts. They all make it out alive, but not before coming to terms with the lives they’re living.
Can You Forgive Her? – By Gina Gionfriddo; Directed by Peter DuBois.
WITH: Eshan Bay (Sateesh), Ella Dershowitz (Tanya), Darren Pettie (Graham), Amber Tamblyn (Miranda) and Frank Wood (David).
Scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Russell H. Champa and sound design by Daniel Kluger & Lee Kinney. Terri K. Kohler, production stage manager. The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, www.vineyardtheatre.org, 212-353-0303. Through June 11. Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.