In transition: 'Becky’s New Car' at Roadrunner Theatre
Roadrunner is a small, rather accomplished East Side theatre company in the middle of its second season. I've seen two of its shows: "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," a charmingly brash musical about romantic relationships, smartly mounted and directed by one of its principals, Jose "Chach" Snook, and "God of Carnage, a sophisticated social comedy by the French playwright Yasmina Reza, intelligently and precisely realized by director Mark Klugheit and an intensely focused ensemble cast.
The company's administrative staff — executive director Renata Rauschen, artistic director Michael Woodson, musical director Snook, and marketing director Larry Fuller — are all well-established figures in Tucson's non-professional theatrical community (disclosures: I've acted with Klugheit and Woodson, briefly explored theatre projects with Rauschen). Moreover, and crucially of course for its survival, Roadrunner has begun building a following in the theatre-starved northeastern part of town: the performances of the two productions I saw, both of which were nominated for local Mac Awards, were sold-out.
Roadrunner's latest show, "Becky's New Car," written by Steven Dietz and directed by Roberto Guajardo, opened this past weekend. Dietz is an interesting phenomenon — a prolific Seattle- and Austin-based dramatist (34 plays since 1981) who annually ranks among the top 10 most-produced American playwrights and yet, never having had an original play produced on Broadway (and only one off-Broadway), owes much of his success and renown to the programmers and audiences of regional, university, community, and commercial theatres west (often considerably so) of the Hudson.
"Becky's New Car" (2008) is one of his three plays which have been finalists or citation-winners for the prestigious Steinberg New Play Awards, given annually by the American Theatre Critics Association "for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City."
What not to do
Guajardo, perhaps Tucson's best-known and respected SAG and Equity actor, has had, as he puts it in his program bio, a "career of over 40 years working in feature film, national TV, and professional theatre."
I knew that Guajardo has worked as a dialect coach for Borderlands Theatre (disclosure: he coached me on "Guantanamo), but I didn't think he had done much live-theatre directing, and the next four sentences of the program bio seem to suggest as much: "He has been privileged to work with some of the most talented people in the industry and is proud to claim several Oscar, Emmy and Tony winners as his co-workers. Consequently, Roberto has also had ample experience working with many whose talents fail to pass any measurable test of competency. On more occasions than he cares to remember, Roberto has had the dubious pleasure of learning 'what not to do' from working with several directors whose talent stretches no further than a 20-year-old rubber band. It is this latter group that has been the greatest influence for him to apply his rich experience as an entertainer to the challenges of directing."
This is an unlikely, rather curious, even off-putting passage for a program bio, which is usually just a list of credits, favorite roles, and thank-yous, but its quirky tone may be more tongue-in-cheek than this excerpting indicates, and, at the very least, it tells you where he's coming from.
The main problem
The main problem with directing "Becky's New Car," it seems to me, is how to realize its rather unusual and elaborate setting.
Here's how the script lays it out (I quote from the online 2008 post-premiere draft): "The play will move without transition between four primary locations: Becky's LIVING ROOM, her CUBICLE at work, her CAR, and the TERRACE of Walter Flood's estate. In point of fact, these are all ONE area, in place onstage at all times. Furthermore, in the case of the CUBICLE and CAR, these areas may actually [be] a part of Becky's LIVING ROOM which has been re-defined by lighting. Simplify. It is not necessary, nor is it desirable, to fully depict any of the play's locales."
Now, to make this conceit work, everything and everyone have to conspire in its presentation and execution — the styles of the furnishings within each of the locations, the lighting plot, how the director blocks the many little scenes and the various shifting beats within them, how the actors play these often constricted areas — and all this constantly changing spectacle and movement have to be clean and clear and consistent.
Guajardo knows all this, of course, and lays things out appropriately enough, but he isn't always strict and precise and crisp about it: the work cubicle looks more like a cluttered breakfast-nook desk; the railing and bench are seldom used; the lighting is somewhat diffuse and, as the play goes along, not always area-specific; characters sometimes seem to wander on to the set (which is in the round), waiting awkwardly to enter or to speak as one scene transitions a little belatedly into another.
Indeed, "transitioning" is, as the script's setting description suggests, one of the main things this play is about: how can Becky (and the rest of the characters, the rest of us) get out of the life-ruts we find ourselves in, go through and beyond all those overlapping parts, the "all ONE area," of our cluttered lives — home and work, self and family, love and death, loyalty and betrayal —desperately trying, and usually failing (the world will come crashing back in on us, in all its forbidding complexity), to "re-define' and "Simplify."
Sometimes, watching this production, I got this point, but not always and not consistently, and then mostly because this crucial idea is already so cleverly realized through the script: its elaborate set, its (ir)resolving comedic (sub)plot(s), its clever mix of language registers (Dietz is not an especially eloquent writer, but he's very adept at code-switching, moving back and forth, as he does here, among sales pitches, pop psychology, juvenile romantic longings, and job-site straight-talk).
Moreover, Roadrunner and Guajardo have assembled an experienced, well-credentialed cast (disclosure: I've performed with Woodson, who plays Becky's husband, as well as Clark Ray, who plays her co-worker, both of whose acting I always find interesting), and they work hard (especially Laura McCormick as Becky, a very demanding role — her energy flags at times, but she's always game and usually right on course), but the ensemble work is occasionally undercut by sluggish pacing (which disrupts the comic timing) and some of the monologues are dulled by monotonous blocking (sometimes the actor just stands and delivers, merely turning in circles to address the round. To be fair, this is a problem induced by the set and its tightly constricted "areas," but that's why we have directors).
Another (somewhat) unusual feature of the play's dialogic style is that Becky "breaks the fourth wall" and interacts with the audience, inviting them into her life with a long monologue that opens the play and, then and later, even gets them to participate in it. She serves them beers, brings them onstage to help her change her clothes, at one point she handed me a roll of toilet paper, a fitting tribute to a reviewer, I suppose, although I don't think she knew who I was.
This too is "transitional," as if the depiction of Becky's restlessness and "dysphoria," her dissatisfaction with "Perceptual Constancy" and her felt need to "self-actualize" (all these terms are her son's borrowed psychobabble), cannot be contained by the traditional boundaries of the performance space: she must break out of it, engage us in her quest to transcend home and work, family and relationships, and "find herself."
But, after a complicated, overlapping series of (mis)adventures involving the rest of the cast—her husband, her son (Nick Smallwood), her co-worker, her lover (Bob Kovitz), his neighbor (Caroline Reed), and his daughter (Daria Berg, a lovely and talented young actor who has already done some good work with ATC, Rogue, and Arizona Rep), all of whom become entangled in her tortured and tortuous effort to reimagine her life and become her "self" — Becky returns home and settles back into "normal" life.
But, as if to atone to her husband, Joe, for what she's done (lied to him, had an affair, left home, faked her death), she acquiesces, at the very end of the play, in his taking over her narrative function.
It is now Joe who talks to us, tells us that she got her old job back, that he can't "forgive and forget" but that "it'll be okay," because "I'm a roofer. I'll . . . just cover it over."
This is an odd moment perhaps in the post-feminist world of the contemporary American theatre, where women are unlikely to relinquish their "voice." But Woodson, allowed for once to play the overlapping areas, managed to give the last scenes of the play — which his character dominates — a plaintive, wistful depth which naturalized this oddity and somehow insinuated, as he and Becky go out riding in her new car, the unlikely vehicle of her new/old life, that they and we are all so much the wiser for having shared her experience.
I'm not quite sure why this ending worked, but it did; it could well have felt like yet another post-modern cop-out, an ending about endings that doesn't really end anything, but it didn't.
We'd gone through so much together, and I felt something was really there, between and among us, that hadn't been there when the play had started, something we — the audience, the actors, the script, the set, and, yes, the director — had somehow conjured together, in the time and space of the performance.
So, what the hell, I gave myself over to it. This is, after all, the way — well, one of the ways — live theatre works: you had to be there, to experience the moment, the frisson, the flash of insight and recognition that happens when we come together, face to face, with ourselves.
Roadrunner Theatre Company is, I am confident, a rising force in Tucson's theatre community. "Becky's New Car" may not be their best effort, but it's good work, and worth seeing. They too are transitioning—and they need, and deserve, our support.