Allergic to Tanyaâs Orman-esque axioms, Miranda seems headed for disaster, and not just financially. On the night the play takes place, the plot unconvincingly sets on a collision course two of the men she regularly soaks for cash. David, her regular sugar daddy, is an emotionally tone-deaf married man who has sex with her two days a week. To help finance the other five, she is also seeing Sateesh (Eshan Bay), a young Indian tech nerd who is drunk, angry about being strung along and (the play would have you believe) insanely volatile. He has a carful of knives.
Like many of their 19th-century prototypes, Tanya and Miranda are not very likable. (The men, even flat-affect David, are much more so.) Tanya is pushy and grating, Miranda a drama queen. Both are dealing with issues like those raised by the 1864 Anthony Trollope novel from which Ms. Gionfriddoâs play takes its title. In that tale, another pair of young women consider their options, of which there are generally only two: marry or donât. In the process they nearly lose everything. âI am not sure,â Trollope writes, âthat marriage may not be pondered over too much.â
Well, a man would say that. (Some readers have jokingly called the novel, which is somewhat overpondered itself, âCan You Finish It?â) One of the things that interests Ms. Gionfriddo is the way 21st-century freedoms have complicated, perhaps even worsened, the odds a woman faces in approaching what Trollope called âthe matrimonial dragon.â Theoretically, she now has a more reasonable chance of slaying it. But in practice, if she wants male companionship, a woman without means still labors under restrictions that do not favor victory.
Unfortunately, the play that explores these worthy ideas feels sour and lumpy. The characters speak a kind of bad-faith dialogue, often mechanical or contrary to logic. But the bigger problem is structural. The first two scenes, one long and the next really long, proceed with only the mildest dramatic action, some of it gussied up with annoyingly antic touches. (Itâs Halloween.) Despite Mr. Pettieâs admirable efforts to strike a spark in this damp environment, a conversation between Graham and Miranda, having nowhere to go, devolves into an interview in which only nuggets of back story are dislodged.
Oddly, itâs the arrival of David, the supposedly unfeeling sugar daddy, that finally jump-starts the action, two-thirds of the way through. (Thatâs partly a result of the fine work of Frank Wood, suggesting a full inner life behind a mask of incomprehension.) Even so, âCan You Forgive Her?â does not, over the longish haul of its 95 minutes, make much drama out of its question mark.
Ms. Gionfriddo has posited this sort of static structure as a viable and possibly female dramaturgy. âWomen are more comfortable than men writing about situations that donât change,â she told Alexis Soloski in a 2012 interview. That might be so, but the Vineyard production, under the direction of Peter DuBois, doesnât translate the authorâs comfort into the audienceâs. The tone is so wobbly that the play draws laughs when it wants to be taken seriously. The opposite is sadly true as well.
That problem is most noticeable in the character of Miranda, who seems suspended between a cartoon and something darker. Ms. Tamblyn has a fascinating pout, a great whiskey voice and a breezy way with both entitlement and self-reproach. As something of a hectic multi-hyphenate herself, sheâs believable as a woman flapping around in a whirlwind of underfinanced dreams. But the script never makes Miranda a figure you respect for her struggles, nor an object of pointed satire. (Alice Vavasor, her closest counterpart in the Trollope novel, is satisfyingly both.)
Despite its perceptiveness about women and marriage today, the play as a whole suffers from the same self-cancelling vagueness as its heroine. Forgive her? We hardly know her.