BOSTON — Director Peter DuBois surveys the set in a rehearsal studio at Huntington Theatre Company on a recent morning. One object, a sagging, frowning jack-o-lantern, needs to be tweaked.
“I wonder if it can have more of that Mitch McConnell menace?” DuBois asks, in reference to the Senate majority leader. McConnell is the rough inspiration for the sketch DuBois provided the props department.
The resemblance is, shall we say, subtle. But this is the sort of fine detail that DuBois will hone in on as the rehearsal continues in earnest. Soon, he’ll suggest that an actor spend an extra moment with a line, and it opens up a previously unexplored laugh. Later, the instant that another actor’s face appears in a window must be precisely calibrated.
The play DuBois and his Huntington team are working on is Gina Gionfriddo’s “Can You Forgive Her?” which makes its world premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, starting on March 25. It is of a piece with Gionfriddo’s other work, telling stories that are rooted in character but that reflect greater social trends. One issue with “Can You Forgive Her?” — a play that examines two fraught relationships over the course of one drink-drenched Halloween night — is how to respect its plentiful amounts of dark humor without letting it become just a “ha-ha” affair.
“Comedy isn’t worthwhile if it doesn’t have a substructure of dramatic intrigue and tension, and that’s how I go about it,” says DuBois, who is also artistic director at the Huntington, seated for an interview in a cramped break room earlier that morning.
The threat of debt and financial hardship looms over most of the characters in this play, particularly Miranda (played by Meredith Forlenza), a 28-year-old woman in a relationship with a romantically stunted doctor, David (Allyn Burrows), who found her on a website that connects well-to-do-men with much younger women seeking economic security. She’s hiding out on this evening from another suitor, who she fears is trying to kill her. Tanya (Tanya Fischer), a sympathetic bartender and devotee of self-help books, has dispatched the flustered woman to the home of her own older boyfriend, Graham (Chris Henry Coffey), who is stuck in a rut several months after the death of his mother. Her boxed possessions still crowd the house.
The play takes its title from a 19th-century novel by Anthony Trollope about three women weighing their life options and aspirations.
“For whatever reason I think I am always interested in the predicament of people who are getting to 30 or 35 and haven’t made the right moves in terms of establishing financial security or establishing a career that will support them. The panic that can set in is just a fertile subject for drama because it can make you do crazy things,” Gionfriddo says on the phone from her home in New York.
She’s conscious of a sense she shares with many of her peers that their parents’ standard of living has become unattainable, she says. “It’s not that I’m sitting down to say: What’s the socioeconomic predicament of my generation? It’s more about, what situations make people act in a way that’s startling and interesting? And for me, it’s usually about money.”
Gionfriddo and DuBois have been friends and collaborators since their days together pursuing MFAs at Brown University. She’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the plays “Becky Shaw” and “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” both of which have been performed at the Huntington. Though DuBois has directed world premieres of “Becky Shaw” (at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky.) and “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (at Playwrights Horizons in New York City), this is the first time he’s brought a Gionfriddo world premiere to Boston.
“I think Gina’s really good at, through character, grabbing a snapshot of the time we’re living in . . . [but] it’s not like I get a phone call saying, ‘I want to write about class in America,’ ” DuBois says. “That’s what I love about it, because it’s sort of taking the back door into really profound issues.”
Dubois will direct “Can You Forgive Her?” off-Broadway next season. Gionfriddo says she was particularly interested in doing a regional production first because some of these characters have “likability issues.”
The play is divided into two long scenes, both in the house Graham inherited from his late mother. There’s comedy in the interaction between the straight-laced Tanya and the saucy Miranda, whose skills for emotional manipulation are well practiced. Graham is quick to appease but slow to make his own decisions. David is a blunt instrument of emotional unavailability. In the play’s second half, tensions steadily rise as one character after another is added to the fray.
“Gina did such an amazing job of choosing the moments when new people enter into the scene because it’s always at a sort of boiling point, and it’s always right before the characters are actually ready for someone else to come in,” says Forlenza, who previously was onstage at the Huntington in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
“It’s escalating and escalating and escalating,” she says, “and then there’s a knock at the door.”
Can You Forgive Her?
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Calderwood Pavilion, BCA, March 25-April 24. Tickets: $25-$85. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.