“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 delighting San Diego audiences in an absolutely terrific production at Solana Beach’s North Coast Repertory.

As you might expect, Becky (Carla Harting) wants a new car. As to a new life, well, the one she has isn’t all that terrible. Her husband Joe (Nicolas Glaeser) has a successful roofing business, Becky herself works for one of her town’s biggest car dealerships, and her 26-year-old son Chris (Kevin Koppman-Gue) 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 (Mark Pinter) 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. The play’s West Coast Premiere at Venice’s Pacific Resident Theatre recently received four Scenies, including Best Production/Comedy and Best Lead Actress/Comedy; thus, it is no small praise to state that North Coast Repertory’s San Diego Premiere, under the supremely assured direction of David Ellenstein, is every bit as wonderful, with the added bonus of the kind of design package only a bigger budget can afford.

I’ve been told that some previous Becky’s have been a bit on the “frumpy” side. Fortunately, like her L.A. counterpart Joanna Daniels, the splendid Harting has radiant stage presence in the role, making Becky the kind of woman you like from the very moment you meet her, and keep on liking even as she slides down the slippery slope towards adultery. We know Harting’s Becky doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, so even as we watch her two-time the poor, clueless Joe, 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, and when one of them offers an opinion that’s not quite what Becky wants to hear, she quips, “What I was looking for there was a different kind of honesty.”

Surrounding Harting’s Becky is an impressive supporting cast, headed by the dynamic duo of Glaeser and Pinter, such night-and-day different types that it’s no wonder Becky finds both Joe and Walter irresistible, Glaeser’s rumpled charm providing just the right contrast to Pinter’s sleek sophistication. The ever reliable Mueen Jahan somehow manages to make Steve both perky and downtrodden, and Glynn Bedington’s world-weary sophistication as Ginger makes her transition to proud working woman all the more delightful to watch.

Finally there are Koppman-Gue and Stacey Hardke, a pair of young San Diego-based actors whose work has already been enjoyed by this reviewer at Diversionary Theatre and San Diego Repertory, once again giving fine, well-rounded performances. Koppman-Gue takes Chris from obnoxious to endearing and Hardke positively sparkles as Walter’s daughter Kenni.

As always, North Coast Rep’s design team does first-class work, beginning with Marty Burnett’s finely appointed set design that fits Becky’s living room, her office at the car dealership, and an elegant balcony overlooking the water onto the same, relatively intimate stage. Matt Novotny’s lighting design works in tandem with Dietz’s script to make Becky’s lightning-quick moves from home to office and back all the funnier, and (together with Chris Leussmann’s sound design), lets us know we’re in Becky’s car without a change of set, or even a steering wheel. Costumes by Sonia Lerner are pitch-perfect choices for each character. Luessmann’s sound design deserves major thumbs up, particularly for one scene where the designer subtly layers night sounds, water, party guests, and background music as two characters stand chatting on the balcony while a party goes on inside. There’s an original song called “Love Can Change,” by San Diego musician John Finkbiner, that not only provides the perfect opening and closing to Dietz’s play but has inspired me to buy the CD Stereophonics 4, which features it. Kudos too to Annie Bornhurst’s props and set dressing and to scenic artist Finkbiner’s gorgeous backdrop sky. Aaron Rumley is Stage Manager.

With two simply marvelous productions of Becky’s New Car running simultaneously in Southern California, the Staadeckers and playwright Dietz have every reason to celebrate the moment when Charles got it into his head to give a birthday gift to Benita. L.A. audiences have already been celebrating for the past two months. Now San Diego audiences can do the same.

North Coast Repertory, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Ste. D, Solana Beach.
–Steven Stanley
September 11, 2011 Photos: Aaron Rumley

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