The central plot concerns Graham, who’s just returned to his recently deceased mother’s home on the Jersey shore. A good deal of the dialogue and story concern her unpublished writings, or loose papers in boxes, which remain center-stage throughout. Are some or any of them ever going to see the light of day, is ostensibly the play’s most persistent question. But then, there’s the question of Graham’s proposal of marriage to Tanya, a waitress with a two-and-a-half year-old daughter. And all of this emerges in the first scene.
“I’ve made bad choices,” says the 27-year-old Tanya, at the top of the play. “I’m a single mother. I work in a bar.” This is shortly before she agrees to marry the 40-something Graham–if he can clean up his act, which will mean cutting back on his drinking and straightening out. “You have to have a livelihood,” Tanya tells Graham. “Drinking and being afraid to go through your dead mother’s stuff is not a livelihood.”
But as much as Ella Dershowitz does to establish Tanya as a solid character we care about, before too long and after the opening scene, it quickly becomes clear that Can You Forgive Her? really belongs to a character named Miranda, who takes over the proceedings the minute she arrives on stage. She is played by Amber Tamblyn, who has a voluptuous body, and is giving what can best be summarized as a voluptuous performance: Both Tamblyn (who is, incredibly, Russ Tamblyn’s daughter) and her character are always “on” and always performing for everyone else in their midst. It’s what used to be quaintly known as a tour-de-force performance. Part of what makes Tamblyn’s work so vital and compelling is that there’s nothing forced about it: her performance is utterly natural, delivered with a you-are-there realism that transcends an actor’s performance.
Miranda arrives on the play’s single set, perfectly designed by Allen Moyer, fresh from the bar where Tanya’s a waitress. It isn’t so much that Miranda has her designs on Graham, as it is that she’s running away from an Indian man, Sateesh, who has a “box of knives in the car.” They’re “real ones,” she adds. “They’re mine. I bought them… Fuck! All the stuff he bought me at the outlets! It’s all in his car.” The consistent intensity of Gionfriddo’s language is enhanced by setting the play on Halloween, which accounts for the vibrant costumes, designed by Jessica Pabst: Tanya is dressed as a “medieval serving wench” and Miranda as a “sexy witch,” clad all in black: black dress revealing her amazingly plump cleavage, plus long, knee-high, black boots, with lacey, black stockings.
While Tanya considers Miranda an outright prostitute, Miranda is also, on this particular night, trying to avoid David, her 50-something “sugar daddy.” “I pretty much destroyed my life with debt,” says Miranda, before adding, “I’m sleeping with David to help get out of debt.” David not only paid “almost ten grand” for Miranda’s two dental implants, but after she “accidentally moved in with a crack addict, he paid to move me out…. He has daughters my age and they’re super fucked up.”
Miranda pores out her heart to Graham, but only because she thought he was gay. She is horribly shocked and dismayed when she learns he’s not. “I told you my stuff because gay men get it,” she says to Graham, before adding, “I’m humiliated. How are you not gay? You’re obsessed with your mother.”
Beneath all the hilarity, Can You Forgive Her? is really about the financial plight of women in a still-sexist culture, despite any inroads made by the Feminist movement over the past half century. As Miranda tells Tanya, David “says I’m part of the liberal elite and I’m broken like the U.S. Government.”
When David comes to get Miranda, she continually belittles him, calling him “a husk of empty skin,” and saying, “You’re missing key chromosomes,” suggesting they have an S & M relationship. Having long ago demonstrated his expertise at portraying self-effacing characters, Frank Wood is just right for the part, even if David, like the play that contains him, proves multi-angled and faceted. The same can be said of Darren Pettie as Graham, who proves a lot more complicated and sympathetic than he at first appears. Though the play’s surprising ending won’t be revealed here, suffice to say Sateesh (Eshan Bayin in little more than a walk-on part) eventually shows up–“with the knives”–in Graham’s busy living room.
Though Can You Forgive Her? is a busy play, it’s directed with an apt, in-your-face, velocity by Peter DuBois, with continually winning results. It also follows Gionfriddo’s deriving inspiration for her plays from literary classics: if her previous play, Becky Shaw was taken from Thackery’s Vanity Fair, Can You Forgive Her? shares a title with an 1864 novel by Trollope in which three women badly choose their male partners based on financial gain.
Can You Forgive Her? (through June 11, 2017)
Vineyard Theater, 108 East 15th Street in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-353-3366 or visit http://www.ovationtix.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission