Life-And-Death Comedy

Gina and Peter

Miranda is young, beautiful, and reckless. Up to her neck in debt, she has been living large by playing two lovers off one another — until, on Halloween night, one of them threatens to kill her. A charismatic, grieving stranger, Graham, lets her hide out at his house — but when he offers her a drink, where will the night take them? In her newest play Can You Forgive Her?, Gina Gionfriddo crafts a surprising comedy where behind every laugh lurks an awareness of the characters’ penchant for self-destruction. 

The life-and-death stakes of the play has its roots in a true crime story that Gionfriddo read. “I became fixated on a crime that was a murder-suicide,” Gionfriddo says. “A couple had gone on a date in which the woman had publicly treated the man badly, maybe humiliated him, and the night ended with him killing her, then himself. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I want to know more about this case,’ and I really couldn’t find out any more than the basic outline. I decided to noodle around with a fictional story to explore why I was so obsessed with it.”

“[M]y voice is my voice,” Gionfriddo says. “The people coping in this situation are coping comically. The way they talk is black comedy; it’s almost as bleak as I imagined... I never want to lose the threat entirely.”

The tense events at its heart inspired the play’s structure; its swift 90-minute plot follows one booze-fueled night at a Delaware beach house. “When I started, I was ruminating on a murder, so in my mind, I was writing my Long Day’s Journey Into a Destructive Night,” Gionfriddo says. However, as she began writing, the dialogue took on her trademark mixture of stinging insight and laugh-out-loud revelation. “As I got into it, my voice is my voice,” Gionfriddo says. “The people coping in this situation are coping comically. The way they talk is black comedy; it’s almost as bleak as I imagined. But as in earlier plays, characters are spinning their situations comically and lightly to keep things from going under.” Yet underneath the comic desperation, the specter of a man walking the streets with a knife remains. “I never want to lose the threat entirely,” she says. 

Miranda’s stalker is echoed by intangible demons that follow her new friend Graham and his girlfriend Tanya. Graham has recently inherited his mother’s beach house — and with it, boxes of her unpublished attempts at writing, from drafts of harlequin romances to comedic essays. Can he dump her life’s work out with the trash that week? Is his duty as a son complicated by the huge payday he will reap by selling the house? His girlfriend Tanya is a bartender, who is trying to use the advice of a financial guru to pull herself and her daughter out of the crippling debt created by her former relationship with a drug addict.

For each character, a lack of financial freedom has become a boundary around their choices. “I’m looking at the panic that sets in at a certain age, if one, particularly a woman, is seeing that financial security is nowhere to be found,” Gionfriddo says. “What can be done? Is it too late to try for a different career? Is there a man around who could provide it?” As Gionfriddo riffs on student debt and income inequality, the play strikes a balance between character-driven drama and larger social contexts, a feature in all of the playwright’s work. The New York Times called Gionfriddo’s previous play Rapture, Blister, Burn “intensely smart, immensely funny,” commenting that “what’s exciting about her writing is the multiplicity of the ideas it engages.” Gionfriddo’s acclaim has grown from her eagerness to explore questions about American life through psychologically complex, deeply flawed characters. 

Like all Gionfriddo’s plays, Can You Forgive Her? also has an evocative, unusual title. Rapture, Blister, Burn was taken from a Courtney Love lyric; Can You Forgive Her? shares its name with a 19th century Anthony Trollope novel. “The novel is about women weighing their options in terms of the men who are out there,” Gionfriddo says. “There are the men who have money versus the men who are charming. The title in that case refers to whether it is ‘unforgivable’ for these women to expect more out of life.” While the moral crimes are more modern for the characters in Gionfriddo’s Can You Forgive Her?, each of them also want more. “Financial security, love, recognition,” Gionfriddo points out. “They each have an urgent appetite for something they don’t have.”


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