Becky's New Car: is no mexico city
In his review in the Georgia Straight, Colin Thomas describes Deborah Williams, who plays Becky in Becky’s New Car (on now at the Arts Club), as “so perfect for the role—she brings such warmth and comedic skill to it—that it feels like the part could have been written for her”. Thomas is bang on. I can’t imagine what this show would have been without Williams.
Peter Birnie in his Vancouver Sun review agrees that Williams “steals the show”. He found the play “zippy” but thought that the cast, under director Rachel Ditor, faltered in making the piece fire on all cylinders. I can see what Birnie is getting at but I don’t completely agree. While it is bizarre to see a wooden Pia Shandel (Vancouverites of a certain vintage will have just sat up and gone “really?”) in the role of Ginger and while I think newcomer Kevin Stark has difficulty finding the right tone for his role as the son, I don’t think the problems lay in the production.
For my money, everyone is working their tails off to make this thing work. Cavan Cunningham, as husband Joe, is one of those performers so supremely relaxed on stage that you think you’re seeing him lounging in his own living room. Hrothgar Matthews is fun as Steve, a work colleague whose wife has died, and delivers a disturbing monologue with great timing. Jackson Davies as billionaire Walter breathes comic life into a weird, philosophizing character. Lindsey Angell does what she can with the thin gruel she’s given as Kennie.
No, for my money, the problem is the script by Stephen Dietz and the winner of the “thinking like Andrew” award has to go to Jo Ledingham in her Courier review. I scribbled the following on my program: “this is Shirley Valentine”. Ledingham came to the same conclusion and does such an excellent job of deconstructing the two works and drawing out the parallels that I could end this review right now with “what she said”.
I don’t usually read other reviews before writing my own (in fact, in two years of PLANK, I think this might be the first time). I usually don’t even read the publicity material that is sent out, which may explain why so many of my reviews sound baffled or confused. I don’t have the calming hand of a publicist to guide my thinking. The reason that I came home and immediately went to the reviews of Becky’s New Car is because I was frankly mystified by this play. It is Shirley Valentine sans the humour (for me, others found it amusing) and without the heart. Although there is some good writing and many compelling ideas suggested (I won’t say explored because so much of the play involves characters – usually the son – announcing themes for us), I found this play to be as engaging as those Hollywood movies that seem to be have been written by a computer (or followers of Robert McKee, take your choice).
And really, that’s what Becky’s New Car is. It contains all the tropes of contemporary theatre: direct to audience address, breaking the fourth wall, monologues on top of monologues, dialogue laced with moments of poetic phrasing. It is also calibrated for a specific demographic: middle-aged women (who, of course, tend to go theatre and drag their husbands along); it features the ungrateful/overeducated child who wont leave home, the loving husband who is faintly dull and umambitious; the drudgery of housework and the lure of glamour – in this case, expensive cars and a billionaire lover. Of course, like all these morality tales, the woman returns to the safe loving arms of the husband and the natural order is restored.
We don’t need the ruling elites to keep us down, we have playwrights like Dietz providing this message for us: stay humble and consume.
I think I know why Bill Millerd, Artistic Managing Director of the Arts Club, programmed this work. Precisely because it is calibrated for a specific demographic that would form the bedrock of the Arts Club audiences (although I’m sure Millerd isn’t interested in keeping the working classes down, that’s just my own political bias coming out). I can understand this programming choice but the question then becomes why this particular play. Was there really, in this vast land, no play written by a Canadian that fit within these parameters?
Before I’m accused of making points out of self interest (I’m a playwright). I should stress that I could not write such a play, in part because I’m not a middle-aged woman living under those circumstances. It is also fair to acknowledge that the Arts Club has become active in fostering and premièring new Canadian work. They have a program called ReAct (run by Ditor) which supports the creation of new work and this season alone, in addition to a reading series, we have had Paradise Garden and My Granny the Goldfish on the Arts Club stage. I didn’t see the former but the latter – despite my reservations about certain elements – knocks Becky’s New Car off the map. It was fresh, original and laugh-out-loud funny. None of which describes Becky’s New Car.
I have no problem with the Arts Club programming Peter Shaffer (as they did earlier this season with Black Comedy) or David Mamet and Edward Albee (as they have done for next season). They should program this work, it is part of the world theatre canon and audiences here deserve to see them. Becky’s New Car is just not in that league and if we’re going to have ropey, by the numbers theatre then I want ropey, by the numbers theatre by Canadian playwrights. At least in that case, there’s a chance that audiences might gasp at moments of self-recognition rather than digesting yet another bland piece of Americana.
Considering the amount of Canadian work produced by the Arts Club, this point might seem a bit unfair but my argument is that unless it’s exceptional we should only see work by Canadians on our stages.
Earlier this season I had the good fortune to attend the closing night of a Hannah Moscovitch double bill – Mexico City and The Russian Play – produced by Halifax’s 2b Theatre and presented by Ruby Slippers. First off an apology to Ruby Slippers in that I never managed to finish and post my review for that show. In part I was so busy at that time but also because the show had already closed there wasn’t the usual pressure to get the review finished and it languished on my computer – until now.
In my unfinished review I wrote the following:
Both plays explore the impact of desire and while neither goes to unexpected places, they are terrifically structured and beautifully judged pieces of writing.
Mexico City tells the story of a, white-bread couple (Tessa Cameron and Conor Green) who in 1960 travel to the Mexican Capital and are confronted with unclean food, sensuality and beliefs far more profound than they ever experienced in their clean, suburban lives. The story is told in a form of direct address to the audience, with the couple not interacting directly to one another but referring to each other in the third person. Thanks to Moscovitch’s gift for humour and deft touches with imagery this conceit never tires and is, indeed, used to underline the theme of disconnectedness between the couple.
The Russian Play is even more daring structurally and is thematically much richer. Moscovitch repackages a basic love story of longing and abandonment – this time of Sonya the flower-shop girl and her lover Piotr the gravedigger – and makes it fresh while still evoking the oldest of folk tales, a rare and beautiful effect. It features an astonishing performance from Colombe Demers (who even manages to overcome my aversion to heavy accents on stage). Demers shifts with grace from character to character, each with their own defined existence – all the while supported by Moscovitch’s sophisticated writing.
Both The Russian Play and Mexico City display a deft simplicity in both the staging, by Christian Barry and the writing. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Moscovitch’s work is that it is calibrated for theatre, it is meant to be heard. Even when dealing with the oldest of old saws, Moscovitch keeps you listening and engaged.
As you can see, Moscovitch, like Dietz, uses the conventions of contemporary theatre but through her understanding of structure and storytelling, through her ability to emotionally connect with her characters, the audience is liberated from convention and theatre is made transcendent.
Mexico City dealt with a similar theme to the Dietz piece: escape and transformation. Moscovitch took us into the sensual darkness; Becky’s New Car took us nowhere. The Moscovitch double bill ran for four days. Becky’s New Car is here until June 5.
I guess that’s why I was depressed on Tuesday night.
Becky's New Car continues until June 5 at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage. For more information take a spin here.