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There’s an enigmatic awfulness about Becky Shaw. I just can’t quite put my finger on it.

It’s true of the title character, certainly: part pitiful victim, part master manipulator; the synergist for the family dysfunction of Gina Gionfriddo’s twisted rom-com. In fact, there’s barely a redeeming quality among the five characters on stage.

Yet even in their abject obnoxiousness the cast can’t seem to bring this story to life. They blunt any spikiness in the writing — and there is some here, certainly — labouring American accents to form unconvincing portraits of deeply unlikeable people.

Indie theatre-makers Echelon Productions are weighed down by considerable expectation. They’ve imported a show with some buzz: a lauded Broadway season, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize nomination, a New York Times review that declared it “as engrossing as it is ferociously funny”. Decades of American cultural imperialism should have made the transition easy.

So it’s hard to feel anything but cheated by the production at Melbourne Theatre Company’s cosy Lawler Studio. Somewhere over the Pacific Becky lost her bite.

Gionfriddo cut her writing teeth on TV’s formulaic Law & Order franchise. There’s a forensic quality about Becky Shaw, her third play, too: a dark family closet, a date, a scuffle, some detective work to piece together what happened. Suzanna (Amanda Levy) — a Carrie Bradshaw-esque creation of restless neurosis — is mourning the death of her father; her mother, sharp-tongued and stoic multiple sclerosis sufferer Susan (Judith Roberts), has already moved on with a new man. Max (Daniel Frederiksen) is a financial adviser and unsympathetic shoulder to lean on. The wealthy womaniser was adopted by the family as a child and shares a sibling-like bond with Suzanna — until a hotel hook-up muddies the relationship.

Months later Suzanna is in a shot-gun marriage to Andrew (Alex Papps), an office manager by day and frustrated writer by night. Becky (Kate Atkinson) is a colleague of Andrew’s; they set her up with Max but one disastrous date will shatter the fragile relationship between husband and wife and defacto brother and sister.

Hollywood will adapt Becky Shaw, you’d think. Renee Zellweger will play Becky. Maybe Reese Witherspoon. Cloris Leachman will be cast as craggy sage Susan, no doubt. They’ll probably sweeten up the ending. But it’s ready-made for celluloid: recognisable scenes; familiar characters that have some depth, some complexity. And Gionfriddo puts some snappy dialogue into their mouths.

Here though, director Indira Carmichael’s production is charmless. It shuffles breathlessly, almost carelessly, across David Samuel’s dark and economical set with little more than a whimper. And the cast fails the test — a stern one, no question — of making their unsympathetic characters engaging.

The accents sabotaged much of it. The decision to retain the American east coast setting was probably the right one given many of the cultural references, but the speech jarred. The performances overall often veered, teeth-grittingly, into caricature.

As the title character, Atkinson was the standout, offering glimpses of poignancy as the damaged and deranged anti-heroine. She probably had the best Yanky twang, too. Papps’ Andrew was a fairly one-dimensional sap, while Frederiksen and Levy as incestual star-cross’d lovers just didn’t ring true. Susan, meanwhile, has a host of great lines but Roberts inspired few guffaws. Hardly ferociously funny.

That Becky Shaw — an ugly mirror on ugly people — grated to such an extent is perhaps credit to what is certainly a more challenging play than most contemporary works. Maybe it was just too sour for my palette. But I tend to think there should have been much more to it.

Curtain Call rating: C

The details: Becky Shaw plays the Lawler Studio at the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank headquarters until November 13. Tickets through the MTC website.