Huntington's "Can You Forgive Her?": Owed to The Great Pumpkin

Chris Henry Coffey, Tanya Fischer, Allyn Burrows & Meredith Forlenza
in "Can You Forgive Her?"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Moments into the first scene of “Can You Forgive Her?”, the new play by Gina Gionfriddo now being presented by Huntington Theatre Company, not one but two great pumpkins appear. They've been deemed too scary by one character's (unseen) young daughter, but what will soon follow are scenes far scarier. This is, after all, the work of a playwright whose blistering humor (in two Pulitzer finalists, Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn) graced the stage at Huntington so memorably in the past (2009 and 2013 respectively). This one, a world premiere, has been referred to as “a life and death comedy”, and that's a pretty accurate tag line. Taking place over a single alcohol-lubricated night in a New Jersey beach town, this 105 minute intermissionless ride features Gionfriddo's familiar targets, inherently flawed characters confronting their limited and limiting choices. We the audience are like gawker-blockers watching, in slow motion (too slow at times) as a seemingly inevitable train wreck occurs before our very eyes. It's a lengthy set up for a powerful payoff. Directed by the company's Artistic Director Peter DuBois at full throttle, it's a dazzler. The title comes from an Anthony Trollope novel about women weighing their possible options with regard to the men in their lives; as the playwright herself puts it: “is it unforgivable to expect more out of life than the dull suitor (a woman is) expected to go with?”, given a choice between charmless men with money or charmers without it.

Halloween Night finds our central character Miranda (Meredith Forlenza) looking desperately for a way out of her present predicaments: mired in student debt, with growing feelings toward the man who's paying those bills, and with her date threatening to kill her. She's been seeing both her sugar daddy David (Allyn Burrows), a brilliant but unemotionally involved doctor with whom she has what might be called a “mutually beneficial arrangement”, and now another man, Sateesh (Theo Iyer). She finds herself in the home of a charismatic and grieving stranger, Graham (Chris Henry Coffey), who offers her refuge and a drink. Also involved is a local barmaid, Tanya (Tayna Fischer), a single mom. All are struggling with past choices that impact their current lives, searching for personal stability, security, and of course, love. Add to the mix the larger social issues of financial freedom, security, and income inequality, and you have all the ingredients for another typically witty and timely treatment by Gionfriddo, who once again strikes a wonderful balance between the woes of the individual and society at large. All of her characters are seeking financial security, love, and recognition, with “urgent appetite for something they don't have”. Miranda in particular, with her “suicidal mountain of debt” is a self-absorbed, self-destructive and hyper-exaggerating mess who declares that she has “personally never encountered love but believe(s) it's out there”. In her own fascinatingly annoying view, she envisions a knife-wielding stalker out to kill her. You can't take your eyes off Forlenza even as you dread the nightmare it would be to be trapped in an elevator with her or, for that matter, with Burrows, the other half of their sadomasochistic relationship. Fischer is adept at conveying Tanya's own neuroses, and Coffey is hysterically reactive throughout, his facial expressions and laid-back movement a joy to watch. As Miranda describes David, and could equally well describe the whole cast, these are not necessarily good people, but they're all decent (though her vitriol gets a bit out of hand when she adds that David is an “emotional cypher with reptilian DNA”).

The technical contributions are all very well executed, from the Scenic Design by Lauren Helpern (the unit set presents a house that represents the life of Graham's mother, earlier and happier, later deteriorating, not well-maintained) to the Costume Design by Mary Lauve, Lighting Design by Phillip S. Rosenberg, and Sound Design by Daniel Kluger.

Near the end of the play, Graham observes the danger of “the examined life... you might find yourself unhappy”. The playwright has once again examined life and found both pathos and humor in it. Theatergoers might find themselves in pain from splitting their sides and having their credulity strained. Some of the plotting is pretty contrived (such as how they all first encounter one another), but there's a lot of truth lurking beneath her crafty dialogue, so one could easily forgive Gionfriddo. Given the sharpness of her skewer and her insight and wit, we all remain indebted.

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