“When a woman says she wants new shoes, what she really wants is a new job.  When she says she wants a new house, what she really wants is a new husband. And when she says she wants a new car, what she really wants is a new life.”

Imparting these words of wisdom is Rebecca (Becky) Foster, middle-aged wife and mother and the title character of Steven Dietz’s Becky’s New Car, now getting a splendid Southern California Premiere production at Venice’s Pacific Resident Theatre.

As you might expect, Becky (Joanna Daniels) wants a new car. As to a new life, well, the one she has isn’t all that terrible. Her husband Joe (Jon Eric Preston) has a successful roofing business, Becky herself works for one of her town’s biggest car dealerships, and her 26-year-old son Chris (Nick Rogers) is a grad student in psychology. 

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and things aren’t all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.  After twenty-eight years of marriage, there’s little if any excitement left in Becky’s, her job is a bore, and her son is more than a bit of a moocher, that is when he’s not spouting his psychobabble responses whatever Mom or Dad say.

Then, late one night when Becky is still hard at work at the dealership, in walks gazillionaire widower Walter Flood (Brad Greenquist) in a bit of a bind. There’s an employee breakfast the next morning and since his beloved Sheila is no longer alive (and therefore unavailable to suggest the perfect gift idea), Walter has made the spur-of-the-moment decision to buy each of his top nine workers a car, and the nicer the vehicle the better.

Once Becky has gotten over the shock of Walter’s request, she suggests the highest-end model as the ideal choice, mentioning in passing, “My husband always wanted one of these.” Perhaps she means that he used to want one, but ended up settling for a cheaper model. Perhaps the past tense is simply a slip of the tongue.  In any case, Walter latches on to the –ed in “wanted,” and assumes that Becky too is in mourning for an adored spouse.

Becky (for reasons known only to her) doesn’t correct Walter’s mistaken impression.  Before long, she has accepted his invitation to drive up to a dinner party at his palatial mansion, and the next thing you know, our heroine is leading a new—and double—life.

Dietz’s funny, original play has been making the regional theater circuit since its 2008 World Premiere at Seattle’s ACT, the playwright having been commissioned to write it by local arts supporter Charles Staadecker as a gift to his wife Benita, and ultimately to the theater community as a whole. PRT trumped some of L.A.’s most prominent large theaters in getting the rights for the first SoCal production, one which the Staadeckers have given an enthusiastic thumbs-up to, and with good reason. It’s hard to imagine a better acted or directed production than the one now gracing the PRT stage.

Director Michael Rothhaar solved the play’s inherent stumbling block—that this is a comedy about an adulteress—by casting Daniels as Becky. Like a 21st Century Doris Day, the ever youthful PRT vet has an innate likeability, the kind you’re either born with or you’re not. Daniels has it in spades, so much so that even as we watch her two-time poor, clueless Joe, we know that she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, and we find ourselves rooting for her no matter what.

It helps that Dietz’s script has Becky not only breaking the fourth wall, but doing so in a way that turns the audience into characters in the play (and Becky’s accomplices) from the get-go.  Needing help with her housekeeping, Becky hands an audience member in the front row a roll of toilet paper and asks him to leave it in the bathroom. Swamped with take-home work from the office, she gets another audience member to do some stapling for her.  Later, she brings up a few ladies to give her advice and help her change clothes in preparation for Walter’s dinner party. Daniels does all this with unflappable aplomb, and a gift for the improvised quip. (“What I was looking for there was a different kind of honesty,” she tells an audience member who’s advised her not to attend Walter’s dinner party.) Daniels’ performance is so winning that it had me regretting all the roles she’s played before and that I missed out on.

The supporting cast shine every bit as brightly. Greenquist is an endearingly quirky Walter, Preston is the personification of salt-of-the-earth as Joe, and Rogers takes a potentially obnoxious character and makes us like him, psychospeak and all. Christopher Shaw is a sad sack delight as Becky’s neurotic coworker Steve, Jules Willcox combines cover girl looks and real acting chops as Walter’s daughter Kenni, and Suzanne Ford takes heiress-gone-broke Ginger and gives her warmth, depth, and strength.

Set designer Wilday makes the absolute most of PTR’s limited stage dimensions to create three different spaces—Becky’s home, her office at the car dealership, and Walter’s mansion (or at least one of its balconies), and even finds a way to hide Becky’s car inside a piece of furniture.  Wilday’s lighting design facilitates the instantaneous scene changes required by Dietz’s script.  Keith Stevenson’s terrific sound design includes some particularly appropriate cell phone ring tones (listen carefully for Steve’s).  Audrey Eisner’s costumes fit each character to a T. 

Becky’s New Car is produced by Sara Newman-Martins.  Marilyn Fox is executive producer, Greg Paul production coordinator and Miguel Flores stage manager. 

Fresh off three LADCC awards for their production of Terrence Rattigan’s 1948 The Browning Version, Pacific Resident Theatre’s decision to go modern with Deitz’s two-year-old Becky’s New Car is a savvy one, and one that could easily lead to more award nominations.  One thing’s for sure. No one in the audience will ever look at buying a new car in quite the same way again!

Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice

–Steven Stanley
July 15, 2010
                                                                       Photo: J.J. Jetel

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