Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Becky’s New Car Crashes Through HART’s Fourth Wall

Bryan Luttrell, Karen Huckfeldt, Carl Dahlquist, Paul Roder, David Roberts, and Patti Speight. Photo by Nicole Mae Photography.

By Tina Arth

HART Theatre’s latest offering, Becky’s New Car, asks a question rarely addressed in theater (but all too often encountered in real life): how should we react when a good person does a bad thing? Does the good person become a bad person? Does the bad thing become OK? Or do we just roll with clichés like “nobody’s perfect” and get on with our lives? Director Dorinda Toner and her cast have a great deal of fun delving into playwright Steven Dietz’s script and milking it for both its comedic and philosophical richness.

The story is convoluted and implausible, rife with stereotypes and characters whose quirks and neuroses would seem way over-the-top in a more conventional production. The show’s salvation is twofold: first, there are lots of just plain funny lines (“so there you have it – my son was loaded and the dishwasher was not”). Second, the show is self-consciously theatrical, with no pretense at maintaining the “fourth wall.” As the audience is actively incorporated into the show at several points, we are insiders rather than spectators, engaged with the cast and relieved of the burden to suspend disbelief.

Middle aged, middle class Becky is having an “is that all there is?” moment, fed up with her roles as office manager at the auto dealership and chief cook and bottle washer at home. Husband Joe is a hard-working roofer, steady and loyal but taciturn to a fault, and uncomfortable with sharing his feelings – as he says, “I’m a roofer. I cover things up.” Son Chris, a twenty-something psychology grad student, lives in the family basement and expresses himself only in pretentious psychobabble while driving his mother crazy with his slovenly habits and self-absorption.

Late one night at the dealership, in charges multimillionaire Walter Flood, a socially inept widower who suddenly sees Becky as the pathway out of his grief.  A comedy of errors follows – Walter thinks Becky is a widow, and relentlessly pursues her.  Becky never quite gets around to correcting Walter’s mistake. She begins a secret double life on Walter’s remote island estate that cannot possibly last. When Joe, Walter, Chris, and Walter’s daughter Kenni discover Becky’s duplicity, chaos naturally ensues.

Patti Speight is brilliant as Becky – outgoing, scattered, and so darned likeable that we just can’t be mad about her tangled web. She’s dead wrong in her prediction that the audience will end up liking her less than husband Joe (David Roberts), although he’s a pretty sympathetic character too. Roberts is definitely at his best in Act 2, when things get serious and we see a bit of the impassioned man beneath the shell. Carl Dalhquist (“Chris”) is annoyingly funny in Act 1, but has the most impact when he loses it – like Roberts, Dahlquist sheds his composure in the second act, moving from smug observer to an emotionally engaged participant in his own life. The other key performance is Bryan Luttrell’s “Walter.” It can’t be easy to be that befuddled, clueless, and harmless while playing the role of the other man, but Luttrell pulls it off. It helps that there is so little sexual chemistry between Becky and Walter that the audience is not forced to imagine them in the throes of an affair.

The set is simple, in keeping with the surrealism of the script. Becky’s office and living room share the stage with Walter’s terrace, and two chairs serve as Becky’s car(s). Lighting, with some cues called out by the cast, directs the audience’s attention to the right zone. This adds up to zero time lost to scene changes – always a plus!

Director Toner has assembled a fine ensemble cast and given them the space they need to express both the comic and more serious elements of this unusual show. It is safe to say that first-time audiences cannot be prepared for everything they will see – and it’s a show that may well merit a second visit to catch nuances missed the first time around.

Becky’s New Car is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through April 3, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.

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