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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Becky’s New Car’ in New London a comically bumpy ride

Critic At Large

Wolf River Theatrical Troupe

Program image.

NEW LONDON, Wis. (WFRV)

The different feel of “Becky’s New Car” starts immediately.

In her living room, the woman playing Becky looks up from her vacuuming and notices the audience. She introduces herself and starts chatting and telling about her husband, who fixes roofs, and son, a perpetual college student who lives in the basement.

Becky tosses a roll of toilet paper to a woman in the front row and asks her to change the holder when next she is in the rest room.

Becky cracks open a soda water can. She offers a can to a man in the audience, then gives one to him.

Becky notices a leak in the roof. (This is a subtle joke about Becky’s husband). She asks a person in the front row to place a bucket in a strategic place. Plink, plink, plink – the sound is heard – ah, just right!

And so the play by clever playwright Steven Dietz starts, a bit off the wall with humor and drama plink, plink, plinking along.

“Becky’s New Car” is the latest venture of Wolf River Theatrical Troupe. Three more performances remain.

Troupe founder Margie Brown directs and guides the adept players, who embrace the riches of the material. The evening is entertaining… and thoughtful as it tweaks stuff of life and change and time passing.

The story includes two widowers. Mourning sets things off. A very rich guy takes Becky as a widow, and Becky’s skirting of the truth leads her to colorful (mis)adventures in temptation.

As Becky, Patty Grossman absorbs the persona of an everyday woman who’s quietly frustrated in ordinary life. When the extraordinary comes along, she leaps… without looking. Around Patty Grossman’s steadiness, the rest of the cast delivers often delightful byplay.

Jim Sexton is excellent with deadpan humor as Becky’s husband Joe, a regular blue-collar Joe.

An irony in this production is the guy who lures Becky, solid businessman/widower Walter Flood, is played by Patty Grossman’s husband, Mark Grossman. Naturally, their scenes together work, especially a kiss.

The car stuff in the title is partly from Becky’s job at an exclusive car dealership. One of her co-workers is a die-hard vegan/nature lover wallowing in his wife’s death during a fall off a cliff during a hike. All this stuff is target for the playwright’s sardonic humor, and Travis Voight latches on to it as a straight guy being silly and not knowing it.

The loft of academia is another target of Steven Dietz. Tommy Micke solidly portrays the know-it-all son filled with loads of psychology pontification while matters the real world pass him by… like actually doing something with his life.

Olivia Levezow arrives in Act II, adding nice touches and chances for surprise as the girlfriend and loving daughter who has come to realize she knows what she wants.

Rita Thiel pops in and out as Ginger, another subject in Steven Dietz’s craw – trust children. Ginger has lived of her family’s wealth, and with all that money burned up, she is desperate. One problem: She shoots from the hip with her mouth with Sugar Daddy.

Action just sort of rolls with “Becky’s New Car.” The play has serious matters in it, but it is so offbeat you know it’s mostly for fun – especially with this cohesive cast.   

***

Creative: Playwright – Steven Dietz; director – Margie Brown; stage manager – Debbie Martin; lighting/sound – Chris Berberich, Tim Schulz; set construction – Matt Peterson, Jim Sexton; set decoration – Margie Brown, Mark Grossman, Patty Grossman; properties – Debbie Martin, Margie Brown; costuming – Lori Jo Schneider

Cast:

Becky (Rebecca) Foster – Patty Grossman

Joe Foster, her husband, the roofer – Jim Sexton

Chris Foster, their son, psychology student – Tommy Micke

Walter Flood, wealthy businessman – Mark Grossman

Kennsington “Kenni” Flood, Walter’s daughter – Olivia Levezow

Steve, Becky’s co-worker – Travis Voight

Ginger, Walter’s single neighbor – Rita Thiel

Running time: Two hours, 18 minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Feb. 27-29

Info: wrtt.org

***

NEXT: “Steele Magnolias” by Robert Harling, June 18-20, 25-27.

VENUE: Real Opportunities Outreach at 304 St. Johns Place in downtown New London is home to Wolf River Theatrical Troupe performances. The building was built as a church in 1906 and most previously was used by Christian Cornerstone Church. The exterior is red brick, with crosses atop the roof and on a side entryway. The rectangular auditorium seats 80 on moveable chairs. The former altar serves as the stage, with an adorned wooden beam and two columns with Corinthian capitals on each side establishing the stage front. The beam holds theatrical lighting fixtures. High above on the walls, wooden shutters cover window spaces. The performance space is unique among theaters in the region. It is especially deep. The stage is about 30 feet wide and at least 35 feet deep. To the left of the stage is the entrance to rest rooms. In the back of the house is the box office and a small area for concessions and displays, including a newspaper clipping from 1980 when the building was an Episcopal church.

A backstory

Charles and Benita Staadecker will not be catching this production of “Becky’s New Car,” but they have seen around 40 productions around the country. Their interest? They commissioned the play.

The Staadeckers offer an illuminating perspective on how plays come to be – at least how “Becky’s New Car” came to be.

The couple is quite enjoying what happened and continues to happen. That would include this add-on to my review.

Charles Staadecker contacted last year prior to another production of “Becky’s New Car” in our area. Benita calls him Charlie. She says Charlie has an app on his cell phone that alerts him to productions of “Becky’s New Car.” I wrote a preview story for the WFRV website, and – bingo! – he emailed this:

“My name is Charlie Staadecker, and I am that crazy husband who decided to give his wife a very unconventional 60th birthday present, a play!
“Formerly of Seattle, we now live in Naples, Florida, where we retired. In Seattle, I went to ACT Theatre, where my wife served on the board. I presented this idea to Artistic Director Kurt Beattie, who had always dreamed of New Plays for the American Theatre by ACT. This would be the first. My only instruction was, ‘Don’t make it dark, it’s a birthday present.’ Kurt then called his dear old friend Steven Dietz and challenged him to write a comedy. Really a deep play about choices you make wrapped in a comedy.
“My goodness, what a journey for us. We have seen over 38 different productions and met the heartfelt artists who make regional Theatre a reality.
“We were told how lucky we were to have a success on our hands, and out of gratitude we spoke to Theatre boards, patrons and audiences encouraging them to do what we did and commission a play. I believe 22 new works were created in our advocacy.
“I could go on and on, but the real expert is my dear wife, Benita. If you want any further backstories, contact her as she is a delight much like Gracie Allen.”

The next morning, I interviewed Benita Staadecker by phone. Here are highlights of our conversation, sometimes as a Q. and A.:

“There were two stipulations for the play – one from Charlie and one from the artistic director,” Benita said. “From the artistic director basically was it can’t be about you (the Staadeckers), and that they would prefer that we would not dictate terms. And Charlie basically only said, ‘Please don’t make it dark. It’s a birthday gift.’

“The artistic director, being wise, hired Steven Dietz, who had worked with the theater for many years, and they knew his work and they liked him a lot. The artistic director said to Steven, ‘I challenge you to write a comedy’ because comedy, as we have discovered, is the hardest thing to write. Steven has said – and this is not a direct quote – ‘Give me a weekend and a bottle of scotch, and I can give you a play. No problem. But a comedy is much more difficult.’ In fact, it took over a year-and-a-half before we saw even the first vestige of ‘Becky’s New Car’.”

Along with seeing “Becky’s New Car” in city after city, the Staadeckers have seen the play multiple times in those cities, Benita said.

“We like to go to either the dress rehearsal or the opening night because that’s always exciting,” she said. “And then, if possible, we like to go toward the closing because there are always changes that happen. The actors become more familiar, both with themselves in the part and with each other. So it’s always interesting for us to see that dynamic.”

I said, “It has to be interesting just from production to production to see how the troupes put things together.”

“Amazing,” Benita said. “The directors all have had a different take on the play, some because of the staging. It was originally staged in the round. So it was made for the round. Not every theater can do it in the round, so they have to make stage changes, and that’s always interesting.

“We have seen it in professional theaters with professional actors. We have seen it non-professional theaters with I will say non-professional actors but who have wowed us with their ability. So I don’t think there are any non-professional actors. They’re all professional. Some are just paid more than others. Only a couple have basically disappointed us, but in the scheme of things that’s not so terrible.”

Q. Are you going to any cities coming up to see “Becky’s New Car”?

A. As it happens, we live in Naples, Florida, and one day we opened the paper and saw that our local theater is doing “Becky’s New Car” in April of 2020. So that makes it very convenient for us to host the cast and have a party and invite all our friends to enjoy this with us. That’s the only one we know so far. Charlie has an app on his phone that alerts him every time “Becky’s New Car” is mentioned, so we always keep abreast of where it is. If something happens that we can put it on our calendar and afford to go, we’ll go.

Q. Do you report back to Steven Dietz when you see a production?

A. Yes, we do. We always tell him which ones we’ve seen and sometimes what we thought, and sometimes we keep it to ourselves.

Q. What does he most want to know?

A. He likes to know where we’ve gone. Another thing, he likes our opinion, but we usually keep it pretty short.

Q. What do you like about the play?

A. I like to watch the audience. I know the play backwards and forward. Except if it’s done very poorly, I don’t get crazy. But I like to watch the audience and see their reaction because there are a couple of moments in the play when it’s a kind of an ah-hah moment, and that to me is the most interesting – the audience, have they discovered the clues? And do they see what’s going to happen? Because it’s not so straightforward. There are some twists and turns like any road a car would go down. It’s not straight the whole way. It’s a left and a right and a U-turn. So that to me is the most interesting.

I said, “I have seen the play a couple of times so far, and it impresses me that the audience really doesn’t know what to expect.”

“Right,” Bonita said. “Well, there are moments when you have to let go of reality. (She spoke of a specific, a spoiler). So you have to suspend reality for a couple minutes and just kind of go with it. But I think it works on a level that understanding that there are a lot of people who have had a Becky moment. I have had many women who have come up to me after the play and said, ‘I so understand what she’s going through. I have had that Becky moment in my life.’ That’s very thought-provoking in that a play can really speak to the emotions that people are having. But you have to realize the play was written 12 years ago, and we were going through a pretty deep recession and Becky had to work and wasn’t feeling appreciated either at the job or at home. A lot of both men and women have gone through that experience, though there are a lot of things there in the play besides just Becky and what she’s going through emotionally.

Q. When you visit the play in another city, do you let on what your connection is?

A. Oh, yes. We never go in like mystery shoppers. They always know we’re coming. We don’t try to overwhelm them. We’re not the center of attention. We always offer, if they want, to use us in any way for publicity or to help with promotion or to talk to the actors and give them insight into the characters and how they were developed because we were there from the very beginning, the very first table reading, through all the cuts and different aspects of how the play happened. So we’re always willing to share what we know. But if they don’t want to hear from us, we’re quiet and we’ll watch the play and applaud and be very grateful for another performance. It just depends on what the theater wants.

Q. Let me guess, you really don’t want to give an assessment necessarily, either. Like, “Oh, yours is pretty good, but we’ve seen better.”

A. Everybody always asks.

Q. Right. “What did you think?” Right?

A. Yes – “Wasn’t this the best one you’ve ever seen?” I’ve developed a rejoinder in that whatever city I’m in, it’s the best one I’ve ever seen in that city. That’s all. It’s like your favorite child. “Who’s your favorite child?” You can’t do that. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. It’s not just the actors who are working hard and the director and lighting director and the stage manager and the person who sweeps the floor – they’re all working hard to make good theater. I am certainly not there to tell them they’re not doing their job. That’s not my role. My role is to show how grateful we are that they’ve done this play.

Q. I think you’re a good person to ask this question. It’s one I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. What is it about theater, you can go any direction, basically, and you come a community and people are putting on plays there. What is it about people that they have to put on plays?

A. This is my assessment from the years that we have been involved in the arts, not just theater, but symphonies. We’ve commissioned four symphonic works. We’ve been very involved in the arts, and I will tell you without regard that without art there would be no element of our history left for future generations. If you look to the Greeks and the Romans the Peloponnesians – how do we know about them? We know about them through their art, whether it’s their architecture, their plays, their writings, their music – whatever it is – we know about them through their art. And I believe in my heart that’s what this is all about. We’re not wealthy. Neither of us was born with a silver spoon in our mouth. We worked hard, and we made a decision on how to spend our money.  Everybody has a right and a reason to donate their disposable income. We just made a decision that we wanted to support the arts because in times of cutbacks, the arts are always the first to be taken out of the budget and we believe that art is critical and important, and we want to support it. So that’s what we do, and that’s why we do it. Nobody’s going to know who I am 200 years from now. But maybe somebody will say, “Oh my God, I found this play in the archives called ‘Becky’s New Car,’ and oh, somebody must have paid to have this written because it’s dedicated to Benita Staadecker. Who is the heck is she?” Well, you know, it’s pretty amazing to have your name on something that basically could live forever, and I’m very grateful for that. And we encourage other people to do it because it’s not hard. I’m not going to discount that it’s not expensive because it can be anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 to commission a playwright to write a play. So, no small change. But it’s beautiful and we’ve done it ourselves and we’ve done it with other couples and we’ve had wonderful experience by doing it and we encourage other people to do it because it’s a lot of fun and it’s amazing to have something that, you know, it’s going to be in the archive, it’s going to be in the library, it’s going to be there, and that’s a gift. A gift that keeps on giving.

Q. Do you get to share in any of the royalties in this?

A. No, we don’t. What we did was in our contract – I don’t know how many years – but a portion of Steven’s royalty went back to ACT Theatre, so it was a gift that we made to ACT Theatre. I think so far it’s been over $80,000 has gone back to the theater. But we get no royalties. We just get intrinsic pleasure, that’s what we get.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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