L-R: Contini, Wall, Russo. Photograph by John Lamb
No preamble, no set-up, time's a-wastin' so let's get to it, shall we? This show's run ends quite soon, so here's hoping my webby overlords can get me posted in time for this write-up to do some good. By dint of unavoidable scheduling, I viewed Insight's new production, Becky's New Car, a few days before I was available to sit down and begin writing. Thank God I take good notes. That is, I know when I will need to take notes. Often, I sit poised with pen to pad as the lights dim and within moments I pocket the pen because I know what I am about to take in will lodge itself in my brain-pan like a popcorn husk in a crown. I knew right off that Becky was not to be such a show. Please don't misunderstand: this show is a lot of fun, very well-acted and truly engaging, but as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, “there's no there there.” More accurately, there's not a preponderance of “there” there. It fills you while you're consuming it, but leaves you snacky just after you've paid the check.
Becky Foster (Susie Wall) herself lays out the evening's proceedings, as we in the audience are invited into her living room, office, and life. Really, we're in whether we accept the invitation or not, as this is a fourth-wall breaking audience participatory-type deal. Viewers are asked questions, prodded for responses and even assigned tasks. This is the kind of thing that could go terribly, terribly wrong. As soon as we grasp, for example, that a question posed to the house is not merely rhetorical but requires a response, tension rises palpably as folks begin counting their proximity to the aisle, calculating the likelihood that they might be next.
Thankfully, all those chosen the night I saw seemed game, though my seat companion was radiating anxiety like a camp stove. The set is a diamond of astroturf, sloping forward, cantilevered over the edge of the Heagney Theater's stage, criss-crossed with lined roadways. A guardrail and floating power-poles concretize the automotive theme, but the highway stage also hosts Becky's living room and office desk. Having dispensed already with the fourth wall, Becky is at liberty to jump from office to living room simply by requesting a light cue from the booth. (A cute gag, and mercifully not over-used.) The interactive convention in this piece works because the cast and director Tlaloc Rivas make it work. One can well imagine the same script having every bit the same impact done as a straight-up farce of duplicity. Even when it's made to work, sometimes a gimmick's still a gimmick.
Steven Dietz's story is a simple one. Simple in the way that so many episodes of Three's Company were. That's a compliment, by-the-by, as it shares its foundation with Wilde and that...Billy Shakestick, or whatever. It's a tale of...well, that's where Dietz's script is a bit fast-foody. Becky is the working wife of a roofer, Joe (Jerry Russo), with a grad-student son in the house, Chris (Scott McMaster). Joe's great, Chris presents no real problem besides his very presence in the house, Becky's job at the car dealership seems tedious at worst. So, when a handsome stranger (John Contini, as Walter Flood) enters the dealership after hours and mistakenly assumes she's a widow...well, of course she couldn't clear that up with a straightforward explanation. Why not up and pursue a double life, with all its requisite misunderstood phone calls and who's-met-who-as-whom high-larity? Too snarky? Okay, really, there are some fine laughs and well-constructed near-miss personnel crossovers, and the play's writing is enough to keep us following along. Dietz perfunctorily establishes that Becky really digs a drive in the car, so later events don't come completely out of left field. But the script is not why you should go—and you should go.
Insight has assembled an exceptional cast for this show, the kind of cast that, frankly, one could watch read the phone book (do they still make those?). Let's just start with two storied heavy hitters, Susie Wall (Becky) and John Contini (Walter): these kiddos gots chops. Wall makes this show. If we don't buy Becky, the whole thing goes to pot. Wall's Becky is an energetic bundle of charm and spunk, seasoned with an appropriate layer of wistful melancholy. She's our companion nearly every second of the night, and even when we question her actions, Wall keeps us in Becky's corner...worth the ticket price alone. Her exciting new stranger, Walter, comes courtesy of the inimitable John Contini, long a fixture on local stages. He's the bumbling billionaire, recent widower, still pining for his late wife. He helplessly stumbles in to the car dealership to buy gifts for his staff (“...do people like cars?”) and is smitten with Becky. Contini's a hoot, and the wealthy man's naivete of real-world rules is a good running bit. His sweet self-absorption is the vehicle for his misunderstanding that Becky's a widow, as he grafts his own predicament onto her every utterance.
Unfortunately for this whole production, these two love-birds are cuckolding a great guy. Boo! Jerry Russo has us all wanting to marry us up a Joe by show's end. He's a hard-working, affable, witty roofer (we all know a couple of those, right?) who clearly loves Becky a bunch. Maybe he's too likeable, as I suspect much of what we're loving in Joe is Jerry Russo. He has a Ned Beatty-cum-John Goodman charm (though, Jerry, you're in much better shape than either, buddy!) that fairly well defines “gruff but lovable.” At any rate, he's a treat in every scene, especially his second act scenes with Walter. Russo and Contini are a gas in their odd-couple interactions. Their son Chris, 26, in grad-school, no immediate prospects for leaving home, receives a splendid portrayal by Scott McMasters. His delivery is spot on as the erudite slob, the mooch with a scholarly justification. As a psychology student, his dialogue is peppered with analysis-speak terminology—“physician, heal thyself” being the obvious subtext. In addition to his role as one more piece of Becky's life baggage,
Chris serves as a player in a further layer of comic misunderstanding down the road, because what's a farce with just one grand secret to reveal? The cast is rounded out by Walter's daughter, Kenni (Lauren Meyer), a widowed socialite Ginger (Tommy Nolan), and a grieving salesman at the dealership, Steve (Ron Haglof). Each performs serviceably as a cog in the machine of this show's convoluted deception. Mopey Steve thinks he's uncovered an affair that isn't their, but in his drive to finally get his, he sets off another sequence of events. Kenni, at first concerned that the vultures (Ginger) are “swooping” in on her vulnerable father, decides to make herself vulnerable to love, and oh! the consequences! Ginger, initially seen digging for Walter's gold, takes inspiration from Becky, plucks up and makes it on her own...she could do it a bit louder, though; I was in row three and often lost her words.
As when folks double-deal in Shakespeare, there is a come-uppance, even may the bad actor be our hero. The deceiver must be made to squirm for a time and Becky gets hers, but wouldn't you know it's good old Joe who makes it all right. I couldn't help but wish that next up we get to see a show about Joe. As it is, Becky's New Car is worth a view. It's no paragon of playwriting, but a night at the theater doesn't always have to be about ahht, dahhling! Sometimes a simple script, even if its little more than a re-hash with some clever one-liners and an oddball staging conceit, can soar in the hands of a skilled director with an able cast. Insight Theatre Company does not disappoint. Just think what they do with a crackerjack book.