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Serious on the Sly

Gina GionfriddoPlaywright Gina Gionfriddo ’91 is drawn to boundary issues, as one of her self-helped characters might put it.

In 2003’s After Ashley, a journalist insists his wife hire a homeless gardener. When the deranged handyman brutally murders the wife, the do-gooder husband parlays the tragedy into a daytime talk show. But the 17-year-old son wants the memory of his flirty, pothead mother safe from mass consumption. “Shame,” he says, “is an idea whose time has come.” The play garnered Gionfriddo an Obie Award (for off-Broadway theatre), a Lucille Lortell Award for Outstanding Play, and a staff-writing gig with the Law & Order franchise.

For her most recent play, Becky Shaw—a runaway hit at last year’s prestigious Humana Festival for new plays that sold out off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre for three months this winter—Gionfriddo “was thinking about caring for strangers,” she says. “To what extent are we responsible for people we don’t know very well?” The people she had in mind, as she often does in her work, were the soldiers doing our fighting for us in Iraq. “It’s a war that feels very distant. It’s gone on for so long that people are sort of disengaged.” In Becky Shaw, she brings it home—obliquely.

In a Barnard playwriting course, Gionfriddo was sent out to eavesdrop on conversations and transcribe them word for word. She found that “people talk around and around what they want to say.” And her plays adhere to that indirection. Becky Shaw, a finalist for the 2009 Pultizer Prize in drama, buzzes around a blind date between the stunningly clingy Becky, and Max, an acerbic commitment-phobe whose sensitive quasi-brother-in-law, Andrew, runs the office where Becky temps. “She’s in a transitional life space,” sympathizes Andrew. No, says Max, “she’s a 35-year-old office temp with no money, no friends, no relationship, no family. How the f--- could you set me up with that?” The war appears casually when Max complains about a previous date with a “dance professor who wanted to tell me about this protest at Harvard—some ‘Artists Emoting Against the War’ bullshit.” The audience laughs.

Gionfriddo, a native of Washington, D.C., didn’t intend to be a playwright. When she headed to Barnard, she wanted to act. “I gave up the idea more quickly than if I’d been at, say, Oberlin,” she explains, “because I had the opportunity to see the audition process” while interning at off-off-Broadway’s Primary Stages. “It was offputting. A lot of the discussion about who to cast was about things the actor couldn’t control.”

Meanwhile, she “got very interested in watching the writers make changes during the rehearsal process.” One of those writers was the experimentalist Mac Wellman, “who was kind enough to say, ‘Why don’t you let me read something you’ve written?’ And he said, ‘You know, you ought to go to graduate school and really do this.’” So she did.

In all of her plays, “there’s a character who’s compulsively making jokes to stave off pain,” she says. The humor is savage and sharp. At Becky Shaw, for example, the audience’s laughter came in bursts, as if it caught them off guard. “I don’t sit down to be funny,” Gionfriddo insists. “I figure out what I want to write about and that’s just how I process it. I think with difficult subjects, humor makes it more palatable. It can open people up.”

Not to everything, though. Take foreclosures. “They’re not sexy,” she asserts. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the stories of America’s economic collapse are really going to be scarfed up unless people kill each other.”

People killing each other is something Gionfriddo knows a surprising amount about. It surprised René Balcer, head writer of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, when he met with her after being wowed by After Ashley and discovered “what a backlog of knowledge I had about crime in America,” she admits. It even baffles her that true crime is her “preferred pleasure reading.” Balcer hired her, and a couple of years later she moved to the flagship show.

A nice thing about TV, she says, is that the scripts reach the audience within months. Stage plays, even sought-after plays such as her own, can languish in development limbo for years. And while the strict parameters of TV drama may limit what she can say—the 42 minutes for exactly four acts, the dictates on the dramatic arc that the commercial breaks impose—there is an upside. When she’s working on her own plays now, “I’m more disciplined about editing,” she says. “I’m better at not being self-indulgent.”

-by Apollinaire Scherr, photograph by Peter Hocking