Becky Shaw, Almeida Theatre, London

Odd couples fail to win the heart
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The Independent Culture

The Pulitzer-nominated US playwright Gina Gionfriddo is an unknown quantity in this country.

She bursts on to the scene now with Becky Shaw, an acerbic, zinger-crammed comedy that – like her compatriot Rebecca Gilman's chilling and deeper Boy Gets Girl – deals with the fall-out of a disastrous blind date. Unveiled in a slick, but slightly soulless production by Peter DuBois, it trains its clued-up, politically incorrect gaze on the ethics of emotional manipulation and the dubious value of telling the full truth. It has the air at times of what an American TV sitcom might sound like, if stretched to two-and-half hours and written by Neil LaBute.

The spectacularly ill-starred meeting is set up by newlyweds, Andrew and Suzanna. The former (nicely played Vincent Montuel) is a serial rescuer of damsels-in-distress, never happier than when offering a shoulder to cry on and earnestly soulful platitudes. Having sorted out his wife, he shifts his pity to the titular Becky, a 35-year-old flaky, impecunious college drop-out who is temping in his office. Suzanna (Anna Madeley), a neurotic PhD student in psychology, likewise wants to fix up her adoptive brother, Max, a commitment-phobic financier and studiedly anti-romantic snob. When he hears that his date is delayed because she doesn't have a mobile phone, his typically waspish response is to ask: "Is she Amish?"

David Wilson Barnes is magnificent in the role (which he originated in the States), uncannily reminiscent of Kevin Spacey in charismatically nonchalant, drop-dead cynical mode. Daisy Haggard's Becky is terrific, too, arriving for the occasion all frilly, flustered and over-dressed – at once kookily attractive, off-puttingly needy and given to absurd flushes of bashful victory whenever she thinks she's said the right thing. They certainly have a night to remember – with horror: a hold-up at gunpoint on the way back from the restaurant followed by an exploitative quickie in Max's hotel room. Becky, though, refuses to accept that they don't have a future and when Max refuses to return her calls, she starts threatening suicide.

This aftermath puts a heavy strain on the new marriage as Andrew mounts his permanently saddled white charger and on the relationship between quasi-siblings Suzanna and Max who have held a torch for one another since childhood and once wound up in bed. There are some neat, if foreseeable, reversals – the hapless victim turns stalking victimiser who uses her weakness as a blackmailing weapon; Max's abrasive scorn increasingly looks like the mask of a man emotionally crippled by his background. But though Ms Haggard skilfully keeps you guessing about the degree to which she is a ditsy con-artist, I never fully believed in the characterisation of Becky. And while the play fizzes with good one-liners ("Pornography makes Andrew cry," Suzanna piously reveals), too much of the dialogue sounds like the sentiments of a new-age pop-psych book subversively up-ended by a wise-cracking, faintly mechanical bitch. This is certainly the case with Suzanna's acid-tongued mother (excellent Haydn Gwynne), who has MS and preaches the doctrine of the stabilising white lie. There's less to this clever, pat play, I feel, than meets the ear.

To 5 March (020 7359 4404)

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