MAC crew up to the task of ‘Becky’s New Car’

By Ben Nyberg

The Manhattan Arts Center Theatre’s second production of the 2012-2013 season, Steven Dietz’s 2008 sitcom Becky’s New Car, debuted last Friday in MAC’s Grosh Performance Hall. Final performances this week: November 8, 9, 10 (evenings), and 11 (afternoon).

If MAC Theatre’s last offering (All My Sons) challenged our audiences with a larger measure than usual of seriousness, Becky’s New Car dares us to decide whether if ever it’s actually seeking to convey any substantive message at all or simply doing its unlevel best to keep us guessing about what it’s up to.

Not that it presents us with any one speech or moment that’s hard to decipher. In fact its individual moves and utterances are mostly so user-friendly as to require no mental energy whatsoever to process them, bit by bit. But if there’s any thematic glue binding the whole together, I didn’t sniff it.

Probably its motives are wholly benign, it’s a mere silly romp, and I shouldn’t look for what just isn’t there. But if its “interactivity” is as strictly gratuitous as it seems, if its occasional lapses into sentiment aren’t meant to punctuate some thematic sentence, if its unbelievable plotline isn’t meant to spell out a crypto-absurdist moral, why put it all out there to be picked up on?

So, abandoning all hope of finding any true gold in the script, call it a soap-opera spoof, sit back and let it slosh over us. How’s it feel? Gotta say, kinda tickles. The 3/4 round seating plan makes room for lots of every-which-way “Laugh-In” style entries and exits. Add a clever multi-location set with ramps with cartoonish highway linkage and even a whimsically chic sedan, and the comedic ambience is in place.

All else that’s needed is an aptly costumed (and intermittently athletic) cast ready to run their lines so fast they overlap each other and leave those in attendance no time to evaluate their plausibility, and of course a director prepared to keep them up to speed. And all this, thankfully, we do have.

Bearing the bulk of the performance load is naturally Becky herself, who has to be so endearing that her audience sides with her even when she betrays them (we all know her Joe doesn’t deserve such bad treatment). Mary Renee Shirk somehow pulls it off. We excuse her infidelity for no better reason than that she’s too darn cute and too sweetly confused to blame just for being a ditzy teenager (with a 26-year-old son).

Playing good-guy hubby Joe is reliable Brent Sigman, doing his best not to seem too insanely reasonable. As his rival Walter “Billboard” Flood, Luke Stramel oozes a smarmy charm that would disgust if it didn’t reek of such rich sincerity. And Jacob Gray Belden’s amusing take on Becky’s gangly stay-at-home pop-psychologist son, Chris, could turn annoying mighty fast if you actually had to live with it. So pity poor Kenni (Emily Barnhill), who seems blissfully game to give that adventure a go.

Star turn award of the night to Penny Cullers for her way-over-the-top manic unleashing of Becky’s rant-prone colleague Stevie. And to complete the cast with one final destabilizing caricature we have scheming widow Ginger (Jennifir Ann McGillis), initially out to nab a piece of Walter’s wealth but ultimately (like everyone else here) too good-hearted to stay wicked.

Overseeing this circus full of amiable clowns with a firm but affectionate hand, and deserving the lion’s share of credit for its success, is director Kim Riley.

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