There’s a good play locked somewhere inside the ramshackle structure of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Can You Forgive Her?,” though it can be glimpsed only sporadically in the uneven world premiere at Huntington Theatre Company.
It should be said that Gionfriddo’s manifold gifts as a sharp-eyed social observer and as a playwright of wit are evident even in this flawed work. But unlike her “Rapture, Blister, Burn’’ — a Pulitzer Prize finalist that examined the tensions and tradeoffs faced by contemporary women, presented at the Huntington three years ago — the disparate and overly byzantine parts of “Can You Forgive Her?’’ don’t cohere into a satisfying whole.
Directed by Gionfriddo’s frequent collaborator Peter DuBois (who also helmed “Rapture, Blister, Burn’’), “Can You Forgive Her?’’ appears to be the playwright’s attempt to deliver a darkly comic parable for our ongoing age of economic insecurity. The idea that money worries can narrow options and distort choices, especially for women, pervades the play, whose title is drawn from a 19th-century novel by Anthony Trollope in which a young female character wonders: “What should a woman do with her life?’’
In the case of 28-year-old Miranda, played at the Huntington by Meredith Forlenza, the answer is a complicated one and seems to involve a lot of pell-mell improvisation. Miranda is massively in debt, which she’s been trying to reduce by engaging in a sex-for-money arrangement with an older, wealthy man named David, played by Allyn Burrows of Actors’ Shakespeare Project in the production’s most juicily entertaining performance. But on this Halloween night Miranda is hiding from a different man: her date for the evening, whom she’s been stringing along and who now, she insists, is out to kill her.
Attired in a black cocktail dress, Miranda tells the elaborate story of her life to a third man, Graham (Chris Henry Coffey), in the New Jersey house that belonged to his late mother. The emotionally adrift Graham, 40, had earlier proposed marriage to 27-year-old Tanya (Tanya Fischer), a financially struggling single mother. It was Tanya, a bartender at the joint where Miranda had gone with her date, who sent Miranda home with Graham when things went haywire with the date. Miranda is unaware of the romantic relationship between him and Tanya, and she starts to zero in on him — an amorous interest that only seems to intensify after she learns of his ties to Tanya.
Though zestily portrayed by Forlenza, last seen in the Huntington’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’’ Miranda is a problematic figure whose inconsistencies as a character seem to have more to do with the structural needs of the play than with the attributes of a fully realized human being. We’re asked to believe that a woman who tosses off references to Shakespeare and Graham Greene and the Federalist Papers would speak in hardbitten argot and repeatedly refer to her date — Sateesh (Theo Iyer), a young tech worker from India, in the US on a temporary visa — as “the Indian.’’
We’re also asked to believe that Miranda is only pouring her heart out to Graham because she is at first under the mistaken belief that he is gay, an awfully tired device by now. And we’re asked to accept that Miranda and Tanya would fiercely compete over the lackluster Graham.
Tanya has insisted that Graham get his act together, job-wise and life-wise, urging him to read her favorite self-help book and telling him that “you have to have a livelihood. Drinking and being afraid to go through your dead mother’s stuff is not a livelihood.’’ What she’s referring to are the file boxes containing Graham’s mother’s unpublished novels and memoir, along with dozens of datebooks, which clutter the living room (the set design is by Lauren Helpern).
Signaled early in the play by a Robert Frost reference, the boxes not opened serve as the equivalent of roads not taken. If anything, Gionfriddo takes too many roads in “Can You Forgive Her?’’ Her new play feels both overstuffed and underdeveloped: not funny enough to stand as a first-rate comedy, not dark enough to feel really dangerous.
CAN YOU FORGIVE HER?
Play by Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, throughApril 24. Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.