The title character in Gina Gionfriddo’s play, “Becky Shaw,” is vaguely inspired by Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, the cunning but penniless young woman at the center of  “Vanity Fair,” William Makepeace Thackary’s 1848 novel that took a satirical look at English society.

‘BECKY SHAW’
Recommended
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park
Tickets: $15 – $55
Info: www.WindyCityPlayhouse.com
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission

But Gionfriddo’s play, now on stage at Windy City Playhouse in a production tautly directed by Scott Weinstein, feels far more like a study in extreme family dysfunction and mental illness than a tale of social climbing, even if money is an issue in the story. And just how much empathy you can have for any of its five characters (no matter how expertly they are being played here) depends on your tolerance for spending time in the company of narcissists, cynics, liars, manipulators, masochists, over-enthusiastic do-gooders and just generally annoying people.

Set in 2009 (in the depths of the recession, though that word is never mentioned), the story is set primarily in Providence, R.I. and Boston, but begins in a shabby New York hotel room. That is where Suzannah Slater (Amy Rubenstein), a doctoral student in psychology who is an unmitigated emotional mess, is meeting with Max Garrett (Michael Doonan), a pragmatic money manager, who, to work a crucial twist on Shakespeare, is a little less than kin and (semi-incestuously) more than kind to her.

As we learn, Suzannah’s recently deceased father, at one time a well-to-do businessman, and his wife, Susan (Suzanne Petri), informally adopted Max when, at the age of 10, his own father was sent to jail. Max informs Suzannah that the family fortune has been largely depleted, and that both she and her decidedly unsentimental mother — who is suffering from multiple sclerosis, and has taken in a young workman as her new companion — had better start living within their means. He also suggests Suzannah’s adored dad may have been gay. And all this is just for starters.

Suzanne Petri (from left), Amy Rubenstein, Michael Pogue and Carley Cornelius in the Windy City Playhouse production of “Becky Shaw.” | Michael Brosilow

Flash forward eight months and Suzannah has married Andrew Porter (Michael Pogue), a struggling writer, “radical feminist” and over-zealous Mr. Nice Guy. They are living in Providence, where Andrew feels trapped in an office job, and wants to downsize in order to focus on his art — a change to which Suzannah, used to a bourgeois existence, is opposed.

Now come the fireworks as Suzanna and Andrew arrange a blind date for Max, who trades girlfriends more quickly than stocks. Her name is Becky Shaw (Carley Cornelius), and she works with Andrew, who describes her as “delicate.” Far better words might be needy, damaged, unhinged and surprisingly cagey. She arrives in what Andrew bluntly labels a little girl’s “party dress,” and drinks far too much wine. And before the night is over a great many things transpire (no spoilers here), in what might best be described as the blind date from hell with countless ramifications. Just another proof that love (or the pursuit of it), is not a pretty thing at all.

As Becky, Cornelius gives one of those cagey, virtuosic performances that makes you unable to turn away. It is perfection, and the chief reason to see this play, although there is fine work from the rest of the cast, too, with Doonan just smarmy enough, Rubenstein just neurotic enough, Pogue just nurturing enough, and Petri terrifically tough and bluntly unromantic enough to keep things popping.

Yet in the end, for all the real and manufactured shock, schlock and bitter truth serum dispensed in “Becky Shaw,” this is the sort of company you certainly would prefer to sidestep in real life, and might just find exhausting in its theatrical incarnation.