"The story about the black boyfriends and the racist parents. Write that up and re-apply to Brown. You'll get in."
In the script of Gina Gionfriddo's MFA '97 critically lauded Off-Broadway play "Becky Shaw," that piece of advice - given to a character who is a Brown dropout with a complicated life story - is followed by a much-needed "beat." That's because the line never fails to get an enormous laugh.
For Gionfriddo, Brown isn't just a useful signifier for the liberal guilt that the play good-naturedly pokes fun at. It also represents an important stage in the sharp-tongued playwright's artistic development.
After graduating from Barnard College in 1991, Gionfriddo entered Brown's Masters in Fine Arts program on the advice of playwright and teacher Mac Wellman. Studying in Providence under Professor of Literary Arts Paula Vogel, Gionfriddo said she felt free to write plays that general audiences wouldn't necessarily have sprung for.
"There wasn't a lot of emphasis on being produceable," she explained.
"She's unshockable," Gionfriddo said of Vogel, who is currently on leave as the chair of the playwriting program at Yale. "I thought I could write anything."
At the same time, the style she was developing as a writer was distinct from what novelist David Shields '78 has called "the Brown aesthetic" - metatheatrical gestures, fractured narratives and an often-ironic embrace of popular culture.
"I often felt like I was Neil Simon in that program," Gionfriddo joked. "I felt like I was so conventional structurally compared to all the people I was in the program with."
Li'l Rhody to the Big Apple
Gionfriddo's narratives do tend to begin at the beginning and end at the end, but she imbues them with an understanding of emotional complexity, as well as an incisive sense of humor.
"Becky Shaw," now coming to the end of an extended run at Second Stage Theatre in New York City, centers around a recently married couple - Suzanna, a psychology grad student, and Andrew, an unsuccessful writer who works odd jobs and temps in an office. Suzanna sets up her closest friend, a ruthlessly judgmental money manager named Max, on a blind date with Andrew's coworker Becky Shaw. But the date goes horribly wrong, disrupting the tenuous balance of the characters' relationships, and the play teases out the implications of this disruption up to a subtle and ambiguous finale.
Set mostly in Providence - with jokes about Portuguese landlords and the way Rhode Islanders say "bubbler" instead of "water fountain" - "Becky Shaw" draws heavily on Gionfriddo's own experiences of life after graduate school. Like Andrew in the play Gionfriddo remained in Providence after graduating, teaching composition classes, picking up babysitting jobs and working temporary jobs. She said her parents, like Suzanna, tended to approve more of the temping.
"What was really starting to weigh on me was there was a way of life we had in graduate school," Gionfriddo said, explaining the connection she feels with Andrew. Scavenging for clothes at the Salvation Army "wasn't cool after a certain point."
During the eight years Gionfriddo lived in Providence, several of her scripts were produced at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. and at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, Kent. In 2004, she got her break with "After Ashley," which premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville and was picked up for an Off-Broadway run in New York. "After Ashley" helped Gionfriddo get her current job as a writer on "Law and Order."
"Becky Shaw" also premiered at Humana, where, according to Gionfriddo, the "re-apply to Brown" line never got the laugh it receives in New York. "Sometimes the audience in New York starts applauding and we have to hold," she said.
"You have no idea how much analysis we have devoted to this," she continued. "Every show there is a huge response from the audience."
A woman who worked as the play's dramaturge in Louisville speculated that it was "some sort of backlash to liberalism now that Obama's been elected," Gionfriddo said.
Gionfriddo has her own theories about why Brown is so good for a laugh. She suspects that parents who have gone through, are going through or are about to go through the college admissions process with their children are a major factor.
She stressed that she "would hate for people to think I'm singling out Brown," but the school's long-standing reputation as a bastion of liberalism helps to advance the play's critique of "activism that is self-indulgent and self-serving."
In "Becky Shaw," most of this critique is voiced by Max, who has no patience for empathy or misplaced emotion. When he hears about a group of students at Brown shipping books to soldiers in Iraq, he bursts out, "When you live in fear of dirty bombs and torture, you do not want a used, highlighted copy of To the f-ing Lighthouse!"
Max's jibes exemplify both Gionfriddo's acidly funny writing and the complexity of her characters. Viewers appreciate that Max's manipulative, competitive nature leads him to exaggerate - to try to be harsher and more clearheaded than anyone else in the room under the guise of being honest. His excessive bluntness reminds the audience that the play is a satire, serving to let a little air out of some occasionally bloated ideas.
Gionfriddo said she will begin work on a new play, commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, after the television season ends.
"I think the reason I keep writing for theater is that people who go to theater, who attend plays, they're really searching for something important," Gionfriddo said. "They're very hopeful."