‘Becky’s New Car’ by Human Race Theatre
A whoosh of colorful highways running up, down and out to sea create a bold scene for The Human Race’s opening production of “Becky’s New Car,” by playwright Steven Dietz, in a journey that moves from home to job to ultra-upscale island, powered by basic longings and unique audience interaction.
With more than a dozen interlaced, sophisticated colors and a very clever lighting design adding more color, the appearance is visually striking, practical and contemporary, described as “zany with a touch of realism” by Scenic Designer Tamara L. Honesty. Durable John Rensel, resident lighting designer who has designed for nearly every stage company in Dayton, has outdone himself for “Becky.”
Director Marya Spring Cordes moves her dynamic cast through this quirky ode to a moral dilemma – a 26-year-old son coming of age and sad widowers – with brisk pace and humor. The audience gets to play, too, given responsibility for catching roof leaks and a few housekeeping chores. Others get intuitive one-liners or office tasks.
Margaret Knapp is Becky Foster, running the emotional gamut convincingly with nuanced skill and timing. She’s frustrated, she’s hesitant and frightened, she’s firm and she’s funny – really funny. Knapp’s past experience with an improvisational comedy troupe is obvious. She can do a “take” of amazement with “I Love Lucy” wide-eyed shock or zip around that stage with purpose. She ponders, addressing the audience, puzzling, fearing her own desires.
Director Cordes said she worked closely with designer Honesty and feels the structure supports the character’s journey with its many directions, making it unclear which road – in life – she’ll choose. She added, “The audience sees this won’t be a conventional play.”
Becky has a seemingly conventional family. Husband Joe Foster, played by David Sitler, does justice to the stable, take-care-of-the-problem kind of guy who may not provide great excitement over the years. He also brings humor and a bit of deception to the somewhat darker second act, as Becky faces her decisions.
As the son, Chris Foster, Wright State University actor training grad Gregory Mallios is just right in the role of a psychology student living in the family basement. Chris responds to almost every situation with the “correct” psychological term. The boy’s been studying recently and clearly knows it all. Much is accurate, but more than annoying for his parents. Chris’s bravado appropriately decreases as he ultimately finds true love.
Two widowers are part of Becky’s journey; one, her co-worker Steve (played by Jason Podplesky) and the other a fairytale middle-aged plus prince charming, Walter Flood (played by Michael Richey).
Becky is the office manager at a car dealership and often talks Steve through his self-perpetuating bouts of hysterical grief. Podplesky writhes and twists and crawls under the desk, using the art of physical comedy most effectively. He can play the other side of his character, too; calmer, more connected to the present.
The crux of the plot – Becky’s temptation – arrives at the dealership one night after closing in the person of Walter Flood who is so over-privileged that he has no idea what anything costs, and thinks he’ll get a few little gifts for employees – nine cars. He is charmed by her straightforward lack of artifice. Michael Richey is genial and calm in the role. His totally believable noblesse oblige makes it easy for Becky to find herself pulled into his world.
Ginger, longtime friend of Walter and his late wife is already in the rarified one-percent world. The Human Race’s own Patricia Linhart elegantly does the boredom and the assumptions of privilege, even as Ginger finds herself penniless and clueless, in need of work.
Walter’s daughter, Kensington “Kenni” Flood, animated by Leslie Goddard, is patient with her father, even as he gives her one more downtown loft she doesn’t want. She longs for real experiences and an unjaded boyfriend. You can anticipate whom that turns out to be.
Cordes clearly appreciates comedic talents: “This cast was a delight, willing to try anything, to push the edges and allow the characters to develop.”
The creative production crew pushed tangible edges as they constructed the multilevel ribbons of colorful highway. Tara Lail, managing director, explained they used steel under plywood beneath the paint. The non-weight bearing pieces are box steel. “As they built right on stage, they were so excited when their technical device worked.” ‘We have bent steel!’ they said, rushing into the office to tell us.” Technical Director is Scott J. Kimmins; Head Carpenter/Charge Artist is Eric Moore; Scenic Artist is Ray Zupp; Production Stage Manager is Kay Carver.
Playwright Dietz pushed convention, too, with the device of breaking the fourth wall, engaging the audience with moral questions and having Becky seek their emotional support. Additionally, the actors talk directly to the light booth. With an unusual twist, the crew moves props and the few pieces of furniture in full stage light at “run, run fast as you can” speed. Scene changes become part of the action, complimenting the pace of the whole production.
He’s great with one-liners, too. “When a woman says she wants new shoes, she wants a new job … when she says she wants a new car, she wants a new life.” “I do not want to have a ‘talk’ and end up fighting over who loves the other more.”
“Becky’s New Car” is the story of a woman who is “tired of being invisible.” There is much to see in this play.
The Human Race Theatre presents “Becky’s New Car” at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. The production runs through Sunday, Sept. 29. For more information, please call 937.228.3630 for tickets or visit humanracetheatre.org.
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com