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Red Orchid Theatre’s ‘Becky Shaw’ explores fallout of bad date gone bad

MierkGirten (as Becky from left) director DamKiely Lance Baker (as Max) work scene during recent rehearsal for “Becky Shaw.”

Mierka Girten (as Becky, from left), director Damon Kiely and Lance Baker (as Max) work on a scene during a recent rehearsal for “Becky Shaw.”

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Updated: November 22, 2011 11:14AM

A blind date goes bad, catastrophically bad, in Gina Gionfriddo’s play “Becky Shaw.” It’s a concept many can identify with, but the playwright takes it one step further, moving into psychological thriller territory.

Gionfriddo says the concept was born out of the image of a woman set up for a date who overdresses, putting herself in a situation from which she never recovers.

“I was interested in the scenario of a disastrous first date,” Gionfriddo said. “How, when something is important to you, a simple thing like a wrong dress can shift the power in the room out of your favor.”

Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, “Becky Shaw” makes its Chicago debut at A Red Orchid Theatre under the direction of Damon Kiely.

The evening in question begins when down-and-out office temp Becky (Mierka Girten) meets cynical money manager Max (Lance Baker). They’ve been set up by Max’s best friend, Suzanna (Jennifer Engstrom), and her husband, Andrew (Dan Granata), who works with Becky. The married couple have their own set of problems, many of which revolve around Suzanna’s mother (Susan Monts-Bologna).

The remainder of the play looks at the aftershocks of the date, which quickly spiral into emotional blackmail. Thirtysomething Becky is at a point in her life where desperation has set in, thus her determination to cling to her non-existent relationship with Max. The career, the relationships, the family haven’t happened, and she’s panicking.

Audiences often see the manipulative side of Becky as “dangerous and malevolent,” Gionfriddo said. But the playwright sees something different.

“I see someone who is starting to panic, and once that sets in, it’s almost like people can smell it on you. You become a pariah. My heart goes out to her. She is aware she’s scaring people, but it’s hard to get that under control.”

At first, Gionfriddo was reluctant to name the play using a character’s name.

“I thought it meant you couldn’t come up with anything else,” Gionfriddo said, laughing. It was the director of the play’s New York production at Second Stage Theatre, Peter DuBois, who believed it was the perfect title.

“He felt it conjured up all those old novels about women who are either destroyed or destroyers and sometimes both,” the playwright said.

Gionfriddo’s interest in theater began as an actor. While studying acting at Barnard College, she interned at a theater and quickly saw what auditions were like.

“I felt I didn’t have it in me to go through that,” Gionfriddo, 41, said. “And I wasn’t loving the material I was working on in acting classes. So I got turned on to the idea of writing something I would like.”

She went on to graduate work at Brown University, where she studied with playwright Paula Vogel, who pushed her “to dig deep and write deep and go to the dark places.”

A former writer on “Law & Order,” “Cold Case” and “Boardwalk Empire,” Gionfriddo currently is developing a television pilot and working on a new play, “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” that will debut at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in the spring. She says writing for the small screen had its advantages and disadvantages.

“Television writing helped make me a disciplined writer,” she said. “But it’s always a plot machine with a formula. The existential-philosophical things that interest me didn’t have an outlet there. To feed that desire, I will always need playwriting.”

† “Becky Shaw” runs through Nov. 6 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. For tickets ($25-$30), call (312) 943-8722;

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