IF YOU GO
What: Unassuming, unappreciated middle-aged Becky starts leading a double life with her husband - and the exotic man of her dreams
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 16, 17, 19, 20 & 4 p.m. Nov. 18.
Where: 2200 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel
Cost: $28 for adults, $15 for child 16 and under
Information: BIG ARTS Marks Box Office at (239) 395-0900, Strauss Theater box office at (239) 472-6862 or bigarts.org
Something Else: Charles and Benita Staadecker will lead a talkback after the Tuesday, Nov. 20 show.
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
Would you, if you could, just get into your car and drive off into the night? Toward a new life? Would you, could you, leave that old life behind? Let the troubles, problems, bills and bad decisions flow away into the inky darkness? Come with me then, as we take "Becky's New Car" for a drive.
Cross the water and mount the toll bridge to Sanibel. If you're lucky, you'll catch one of the most spectacular sunsets you've ever seen. Cruise down Periwinkle and glimpse the slower pace of an island that manages to hold off the ravages of civilization. The BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theater hosts Theatre Conspiracy for an encore run of the Steven Dietz play about love, loss, lies and good leather seats.
"Becky's New Car" enjoyed an unusual journey to the stage. Seattle developer Charles Staadecker commissioned the play as a birthday gift for his wife Benita. Created for Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, the show became a hit; the couple has traveled the country visiting theaters that produce "Becky's New Car." The Staadeckers will give a talkback after the Tuesday, Nov. 20 performance on Sanibel.
The quirky, bittersweet show defies description even as it drills through the psyche of modern relationships. Rebecca "Becky" Foster wakes up one morning and announces she needs a new house. Of course, as the play informs us, when a woman "says she needs a new house, she wants a new husband. And when she says she wants a new car, she wants a new life." Oh, Beck-y. Beck-y. Beck-y.
I wish I could say the show had reflected a new model, even a tune-up or a new coat of paint, from the version that debuted at Theatre Conspiracy in December 2011. I can't. Some parts - notably the second half - soar. But choices forced by casting new actors (four members of the original cast were unavailable) and moving the play to a different physical space plainly don't work.
Director Stephen Hooper gets the show. He understands the mix of comedy, drama, wistful longing and hopeful regret that spill across the stage. Separately, many of the moments work. Yet, Hooper's style - I think of it as "cerebral anarchy" - depends on the play's elements coalescing with an uncertain alchemy. His ensemble proves willing - but the pieces never quite fall into place.
Hooper and set designer Bill Taylor may have erred in simply adapting the Theatre Conspiracy set for BIG ARTS and not re-imagining the design for the different three-quarter-thrust space. Although creating office, living room and balcony worked on a proscenium stage, it feels cold and distant in this space. Pared-down staging - just a desk, couch, balcony - might have moved the actors closer to the audience and allowed more intimacy.
Major technical issues also plagued the lighting cues on Tuesday's opening night. The show depends on seamless transitions between four distinct spaces; these issues offered a serious distraction. Actors waited in darkness during some moments or stood while lights ran through various hues of blue, purple, violet and finally white. A moody, dramatic cue for the doomed Mrs. Tipton character failed entirely one time and balked the second.
Lauren Drexler makes an appealing Becky, although I wish she and Hooper could find a way to not make it look like she's metaphorically grinding gears trying to carry the entire first act. Drexler manages weary, wistful and wise - but the show never quite transcends reality to reach the magical wonderland where Becky can shift gears and drive toward a new life.
Audience participation segments come across much better this time. Audience members help Becky with paperwork, accept drinks and even go on-stage to help her get ready for a date. Drexler improvs a delightful bit when a newlywed advises against accepting an invitation from another man - and gets a huge laugh from the crowd.
In one notable success, Scott Thomson elevates the part of billboard magnate and love interest Walter Flood to true romantic lead. The chemistry missing from Theatre Conspiracy's version appears here; the Becky-Walter relationship helps the wistful, hopeful second half sing with promise. Thomson gives a more overt performance, bringing life to a lonely man who lost a beloved first wife and desperate to fill a void in his life.
Brittany Albury (Kenni) and Taylor Murphy Hale (Chris) join the production as Walter and Becky's children, respectively. The pair add a vigorous, youthful charm. Hale especially shines as a philosophy-spouting son who never seems destined never to leave his parents' basement. Look too for Nancy Antonio (Ginger), who reprises her role as a brittle socialite faced with the loss of her fortune. In the sharper second half, her character offers a tough lesson on life, love and moving on.
Some new casting choices work less well. Veteran Scott Carpenter seems uncomfortable as Becky's rough-and-tumble husband Joe. Hooper asks him to concentrate so much on being brusque and burly that the role's essential humanity gets lost. Joe feels like a villain here - even though Becky explicitly states "you'll probably end up liking Joe way more than you like me." Charlie Greer (Steve) struggles to play an arrogant car salesman, although his scenes with Antonio do have heft.
For all its faults, this model of "Becky's New Car" does unlock one key feature. I've read the play multiple times, met and interviewed the Staadeckers and talked with the actors. Yet, I've always felt like the show sets up a brilliant premise - and then goes nowhere. That changed Tuesday night.
"Becky's New Car" treats relationships - or really, love - like the concrete spaghetti of America's highways. Pick a direction - any direction - and go; you're off on a journey - and you don't know what road will hold.
Thomson's Walter delivers a beautiful, heartfelt monologue that drives the point home - love is just playing the odds. Pick a road, any road. You might get lucky and hit the freeway, like Chris and Kenni - young love, no traffic for miles. You might get an offramp, like Ginger and Steve - and then pick up a hitchhiker who puts you back on the right patch.
Or you might crash, like Becky, Walter and Joe. Everyone walks away, but with lasting scars. Love is a crapshoot. Just like driving. But you have to get behind the wheel of "Becky's New Car" to find out where the road goes.
"All alone. Radio on. Traffic moving, nice and easy." Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.