It’s commonly observed that a successful comedy is tougher to pull off than a serious dramatic play. Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati and Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers never seem daunted by that challenge.
The latest piece of evidence is ETC’s production of Becky’s New Car by Steven Dietz. I've seldom heard people laugh out loud so heartily or repeatedly as they did on opening night for this clever show.
The show is unpredictable from the get-go: Becky Foster (Kate Wilford) backs onstage and starts chatting directly with the audience. It’s not simply a monologue; she seeks their assistance and invites their opinions. She has a story to tell about what’s happened to her but wants to engage everyone, so she asks several people to help — with her housecleaning, with getting dressed, with making decisions about several big personal choices facing her.
Becky leads a predictable life with Joe (John LiBrizzi), her nice-guy husband of 28 years, and their son Chris (Matthew Holstegge), who’s 26 and back home while studying psychology and spouting psychobabble about people around him. Her routine existence includes working as a sales manager at a car dealership with Steve (Michael G. Bath), a neurotic salesman still wallowing in his wife’s accidental death. Phones play a big role in the lives of Becky and others, and Dietz weaves calls, conversations and cell phone moments into his comic tale. (Be sure yours is turned off.)
Things change for Becky one evening when Walter Flood (Dennis Parlato), an eccentric millionaire, wanders in to buy nine cars for his employees.
He is smitten with Becky, whom he misunderstands to be widowed, and she can’t quite bring herself to set him straight. She embarks on a double-life that provides plenty of humor as she navigates back and forth — literally crossing a double-yellow line down the middle of Brian c. Mehring’s traffic-themed set — between the competing roads of her life.
Playwright Dietz is a bit too fond of the twists and turns of his tricky plot at the expense of letting characters become a bit more real and address the issues of changing one’s life for the better. But Dietz definitely knows how to write witty dialogue and invent scenes with tremendous comic potential. The resolution of this play is an intersection of threads worthy of a Shakespearean romance, when everything suddenly converges and comes aright.
(Read my recent interview with Dietz here.)
The novelty of Becky’s New Car is how Dietz and ETC’s excellent cast engage the audience by interacting with them. For a while, it’s only Becky, but as her story wraps up her husband drops being Mr. Nice Guy and has a few words of his own with the audience, showing an inclination to be more forceful with his errant wife.
Wilford is great fun to watch as the talkative Becky; LiBrizzi makes Joe real and comic at the same time; Parlato’s daft and slightly off-kilter Walter is great fun to watch as he comes at life from his own oblique angle. Bath is amusingly twitchy; Holstegge plays the slacker with acuity; and Walter’s daughter Kenni and his bitchy friend Ginger are well-defined minor portraits by Christine Fallon and Annie Fitzpatrick.
I would prefer fewer comic angles and more probing as to why Becky yearns for a new car, which she equates with a new life. But there’s no denying that most people in ETC’s audience were simply glad to take a spin with this very funny piece of theater.
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