Razor-Sharp Wit: Gina Gionfriddo's Comic Heart

“There are a lot of nasty things people would like to say to each other,” writer Gina Gionfriddo says, referring to her characters. “Their way of doing this without getting punched or looking like a jerk is saying them as a joke. But, after you finish laughing, you realize, ‘Oh. They probably meant that.’” Gionfriddo crafts punch lines that are incisively frank and designed to cut deep. Whether she is writing plays like the 2004 Off Broadway hit After Ashley, working as a writer and producer on “Law & Order,” or contributing essays to The Believer, her work responds to the confounds of American culture with straightforward honesty and galvanizing wit.

Gionfriddo has an eye for ethical paradoxes and moral mysteries. In her play U.S. Drag, winner of the 2001 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, she mulls unsettling questions about safety. In the play, a serial killer targets the friendly, so isn’t it prudent for the characters to stop helping strangers? When a group of vigilantes begins to hunt for the killer, can they think of the bounty as a get-rich quick scheme?

“On some level, I’m conscious that humor is going to make palatable some of the difficult stuff I want to talk about,” Gionfriddo asserts. “But more immediately, I write characters who use humor to survive whatever darkness or disappointment has befallen them.” She approaches her characters with a sense of empathy, leading her to fictive subjects who are bracingly dimensional.

After Ashley, a thoughtful dissection of how private grief can become co-opted as public property, centers on the death of a woman who is too complicated for simple martyrdom. The audience sees Ashley in only a single comic scene — a bizarrely inappropriate conversation with her son — so after her brutal, headline-grabbing death, we wonder: what responsibility does that son have to represent his mother’s rough edges, particularly to strangers who are often focused on their own self-centered motives? “A big deal for me with After Ashley was the language that people were using after 9/11,” Gionfriddo recalls. “I would start to cringe at the word ‘victim.’ If a person lost somebody they met at a party a couple of times, they’re using the same language — ‘I lost someone’ — as someone who lost a spouse or a child. The truth of the moment is obscured when everyone is using the same language.”

In 2004, Gionfriddo wrote the first of two pieces she has contributed to The Believer, a journal on culture. Her essay, “XO Elliott,” looks deeply into the reasons for singer-songwriter Elliott Smith’s cultural cache and the ways in which Gionfriddo’s own reverent fandom took on new complexity in light of Smith’s chilling death. Remembering his work, she writes, “Smith’s songs were fearlessly holistic: complicated and confounding, rife with internal contradictions and mood swings. Truthful.” She’s writing about Elliott Smith, but in the messiness she applauds in his work, there are echoes of the unsayable truths she captures in her own.

Since the premiere of Becky Shaw, an Off Broadway smash that was a finalist for 2009’s Pulitzer Prize, Gionfriddo has been working on a commission from Playwrights Horizons and several film projects. But Artistic Director Peter DuBois, who has known Gionfriddo since they were students together at Brown University, is keen on keeping her in the Huntington family. “Becky Shaw makes me laugh out loud in the skillful way it examines human behavior and personal relationships,” says DuBois. “This is exactly what great comedy should do. Gina has written a sharp, cunning play that shifts our perspective about the tensions between love, money, and happiness.”

— Charles Haugland

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