Gina Gionfriddo’s searing, hilarious new comedy/drama Becky Shaw
is the kind of contemporary behavioral study that sends audiences out arguing about the characters as if they’re real people. Who was in the right? Why would anyone put up with that? Don’t you know people like that—and don’t you hate them?
So it’s only fitting that an interview with the actor David Wilson Barnes, an accomplished actor with a raft of Off-Broadway and a few Broadway credits, dwells not on him and his career but on Max, the hilariously blunt, even casually cruel money manager at the center of the play.
“It’s fun to be right—Max has the moral high ground in the play—while at the same time being kind of a jerk about it,” says Barnes, who has been involved with the play since its first reading and acted in its acclaimed run at Louisville’s Humana Festival earlier this year. Some would dispute that Max—a cynic who goes on an ill-starred blind date with the needy single woman of the title, then methodically shuts her out of his life—is blameless.
“When we did it in Louisville, there was more of a mingling environment after the show than here in New York,” Barnes says. “And I had people say, ‘He was just a bastard,’ and I would say, ‘Why do you think that?’ And they’d say, ‘He’s just so mean.’ And I’d say, ‘He says the truth,’ and their response was, ‘But he’s mean about it.’ ”
Is this just an extreme case of an actor taking the side of the character he’s playing, all the better to inhabit him?
“Oh yeah, entirely,” Barnes. “I get viscerally offended when people say he’s an asshole. The play creates an interesting kind of Rorschach test for people. In New York, people are Max. In Louisville, a more suburban area, they tended to align themselves more with Andrew.”
Andrew is the almost comically super-sensitive husband of Suzanna, a near-sister of Max’s from childhood. It’s Andrew and Suzanna who set up Max up on a blind date with Becky, then come to regret it in spades.
“He’s pretty much the quintessential New Yorker,” says Barnes of Max. “If you were to take all the sharp aspects of every New Yorker—he’s kind of an amalgamation of that. I kind of like people like Max; I like the honesty and the flippant quality.”
By play’s end, Max has spouted a torrent of memorable putdowns and quips (sample, to Suzanna: “You and your mother—it’s like the Middle East. Bad situation, not gonna change”), but the saving grace of Barnes’ performance is that Max never seems like he’s delivering one-liners.
“I don’t think he sets out to be smart,” Barnes agrees. “As soon as he sees something false, he doesn’t have a filter to stop him from saying so. I don’t think his self-worth is tied up with people seeing how witty he is. I think that makes him more palatable as a character. There’s no ego gratification in what he says.”
That’s not to say Max doesn’t like the way he is.
“That’s something that [director] Peter [DuBois] tried to drive home: Max enjoys being Max. That is his happiness. When people get in his way, he gets upset—but he kinda likes that, too, because then he gets to be right.”
On the other hand, Barnes says, if he starts to relish his character’s unflinching honesty too much, the audience tunes out.
“I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago,” Barnes recounts. “I have a line to Suzanna: ‘She’s a 35-year-old temp, no money, no family…How could you set me up with that?’ And I started saying each word in a sing-songy, mocking voice, when I usually just say it in one tone. I judged what I was saying about her—and it got no laughter from the audience.”
The lesson: “Max is never mean; he’s just blunt. If he becomes mean or mocking, he’s not an interesting person.”
Does playing such an unapologetic, if witty misanthrope rub off on Barnes? In other words, does he leave Max at the theatre door, or do Barnes’ real-life friends cower from his next withering comment?
“It’s kind of like a drug,” Barnes admits. “I do carry him around a little bit. I’m not as smart as he is, and I have a much higher opinion of humanity. I wouldn’t say the things he says. He says the things we’d love to say. But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and everyone I admire is like that.”
Barnes says he’s half-seriously encouraged Gionfriddo to put out a piece of supplemental merchandise: a book called “Life According To Max,” full of the character’s pithy, aphoristic philosophy on love, life and social responsibility. The key text: Max’s speech about his “plot of land,” which Barnes considers a “a genius work of morality.” Boiled down to its essence, it says that each of has been allotted a specific “plot of land” to tend, that our life’s work is do that to our best ability and that we must be unwavering in this task.
“You have this area you take care of the best you can,” Barnes sums up. Of course, as beautiful as that philosophy may sound, it might also be seen as the diagnosis of a control freak who aspires to mastery of things beyond his grasp. And indeed, Max’s intriguing backstory—an absent, imprisoned father, adoption by another ambiguous father figure, possessive love for Suzanna—would make for rich study.
But Barnes, true as ever to his character, didn’t go there.
“You could argue, for sure, that opening up the basket of worms of his relationship with his father, and Suzanna’s father—there’s a lot of psychological stuff you could do. It’s a choice for him not to be in therapy.”
Now there’s a provocation that sure to create a stir with overanalyzed New York audiences.
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