Cynthia Killion (Becky) and Brian Robert Harris (Steve) in "Becky's New Car" (photo by Brian Stethem)
REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Have you ever acted on an impulse, knowing you were doing the wrong thing, but went through with it anyway? That’s the dilemma housewife Becky Foster faces in Steven Dietz’s charming and funny play, Becky’s New Car, now playing through October 1 at the Santa Paula Theater Center.
Married for 28 years to her loyal husband Joe, Becky lives a comfortable, but humdrum existence with Joe and their 26-year-old “eternal freeloader” son, Chris. Her day job is managing a car dealership but she is wishing for something more. “You reach a certain age and you’re suddenly invisible,” she tells the audience, breaking the fourth wall. “I want to be seen.” And seen she is, by Walter Flood, a loopy millionaire widower who comes to order nine cars for his employees and mistakes Becky for a willing widow. The play’s title is a metaphor, as Becky tells the audience, “When a woman says she wants a new car, she means she wants a new life.”
What follows is an all-too-familiar story, often seen in films and television shows: a woman looking for excitement ends up leading a double life because she refuses to tell her husband and her lover the truth. But there’s more to Becky’s New Car than that. Dietz’s play fleshes out the characters to be more than two-dimensional stereotypes, injecting true humor and warmth into the usual insanity inherent in your typical wacky bedroom farce.
The story includes a refreshing gimmick as Becky confides her thoughts and desires not to another character in the play, but to the audience. In the process, she puts them to work, having audience members collate and staple invoices from the car dealership, placing a bucket underneath a leaky spot in her ceiling (ironic since Joe installs and repairs roofs for a living), and holding a mirror while she puts on lipstick for her first “date” with Walter. It’s almost like a back-fence friendship as she even polls the audience about what she should do when Walter asks her to attend a swanky soirée at his waterfront estate. (Of course, it doesn’t matter how the audience votes; she is going anyway.)
As usually happens in these stories, chaos ensues when Becky decides to lead a double life, without really knowing why. The coincidences start piling on top of one another like a house of cards as everyone seems capable of collapsing it: Chris is dating Kenni, Walter’s grown daughter; Steve, Becky’s suspicious, overly dramatic car salesman, suspects her apparent affair; and Ginger, a predatory socialite, is after Walter’s money. In the end, Becky is overwhelmed trying to keep everyone from meeting one another which will cause the cards to fall and the proverbial jig will be up. When this inexorably happens, it is almost a relief to the audience because there are no unsympathetic characters in the story; we are rooting for everyone and are delighted when the inevitable happens. The resulting denouement turns out to be a rather tidy end to the play. (it’s much like a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in that regard.)
Cynthia Killion is sweet and sympathetic as Becky, who doesn’t have the heart to tell the eager Walter that her husband is alive and their marriage well. Ron Rezac is always the charmer, whether he’s playing the good guy or the heavy, and he’s both in this play. Although he is unknowingly disrupting Becky and Joe’s solid marriage, Rezac plays Walter as a sympathetic, if socially inept figure, a man who is in such pain about his late wife’s passing that he insists on not talking about her at all. It’s impossible to hate Walter and we would love nothing more than for Becky to split into two so she can have her stable, boring marriage and also live the exciting life of a jet-setting socialite.
Scott Blanchard plays the key role of Joe with patient charisma. Good humored and devoted to Becky, Joe has to be likable for the play to work so that the audience doesn’t root for Becky to pursue her affair. Because Rezac and Blanchard are so good, we’re not sure what to advise Becky to do. The ambiguity of her feelings is what makes the play so much fun. The decision is out of our hands so we have to watch and see how it plays out.
Andrew Garrett is great as the Foster’s son Chris, who is given a million dollar vocabulary to make him not seem like just another derelict ne-er-do-well who lives at home. Chris is looking to have a relationship with a girl, but wants someone who is not just (in Dietz’s brilliantly written words) “lipstick, Spandex, and an exclamation point.”
Brian Robert Harris is at his best in roles like salesman Steve, a human powder keg overflowing with anxiety (Harris is Ventura County’s answer to Dennis Franz.) and he is especially brilliant here. Jennifer Skutley plays her part well as Walter’s daughter, Kenni. Aileen-Marie Scott, one of our great character actresses, is terrific in the minor role of the chronically soused Ginger, who has spent her trust fund money and is looking to the vulnerable Walter for a refill.
The seven actors deserve extra plaudits just for surviving the brutal, sweltering heat inside the unair- conditioned Santa Paula Theater Center’s main stage. With just ceiling fans blowing and transoms wide open to allow some circulation, the audience was able to tolerate the severe conditions, but the cast, many of whom had to wear suits or heavy costumes, were clearly challenged. Fortunately all came through without any casualties and the coming weeks promises a cooler indoor climate, which will make everyone more comfortable, on stage and off.
Becky’s New Car is directed by Jessi May Stevenson with set design by Mike Carnahan and lighting by Gary Richardson. Barbara Pedziwiatr created the costumes while Allan Noel provided appropriate sound effects.
Becky’s New Car plays at the Santa Paula Theater Center through October 1. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.