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BWW Reviews: BECKY'S NEW CAR revs up Nashville's summer theater season

How many of us have toyed with the notion of just getting in a car and driving off toward the horizon, in search of more adventure, more excitement, just more really? Hell, if I had a dollar for every time I've wished it, I could afford to do it. It's a tantalizing option, one most normal people (not that I'm really that normal) can ever realize, but still it holds such intriguing sway over our fantasy lives...

At its heart, that's the crux of the matter faced by Becky Foster, a wife and mother who finds herself right smack dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis in Becky's New Car, the farcical Stephen Dietz comedy now onstage at Belmont University's Black Box Theatre, in a thoroughly winning production from Actors Bridge Ensemble that - Peggy Lee notwithstanding - asks the musical question "Is that all there is?" and which offers up one of the best theatrical roles of recent vintage written for a woman.

Directed by the company's producing artistic director Vali Forrister, Becky's New Car is a perfect choice for Actors Bridge, providing a showcase for a group of talented actors so charming and so engaging that you might find yourself falling a little bit in love with the whole lot. In fact, I'd probably drink the bathwater of the entire cast, so completely believable are they in this sharply written, inventively staged production. Take my advice: You best go look under the hood of Becky's New Car before its run ends on August 7.

Becky Foster (played by Kim Bretton) is a hardworking (she manages the office at Bill Buckley's auto superstore or megaplex or carworld or something like that) middle-class woman in her 28th year of marriage to her good guy of a husband (Brock Hart), who's a roofer and promises he can "cover over" anything and everything (despite the holes in his own roof). Their 26-year-old son Chris (Josiah Gibbs) is a graduate student in psychology who still lives at home, in the purgatory that is the family basement. It's a relatively simple and staid lifestyle led by the inhabitants of the Foster home, so it's easily understood when Becky's life goes so completely off-course as serendipity takes over - when a rich, lonely widower named Walter Flood (Matthew Carlton) comes into the auto dealership after closing time to buy nine new cars for his employees - and propels Becky on a journey of self-discovery, leavened with hilarity and sharp repartee.

Dietz's play is a contemporary comedy of manners, peopled by likable characters who give voIce To his exquisitely written dialogue - that is never too cutesy or too predictable (although, let's face it, all farce is kind of predictable, no matter how clever the writer's premise is) - as the tale of Becky, her husband, the other man and her son plays out onstage. Dietz allows characters to sometime break the fourth wall in order to include the audience in what's happening onstage, thus ensuring that we completely buy into the whole convoluted tale that's happening onstage: at various times, audience members are offered a beer or a Co' cola (as we Southerners call any fizzy soft-drink), asked to collate some paperwork from the dealership or to help Becky change into a little black dress. In its way, it helps to further establish Becky's everywoman role, so that every woman in the audience - and every man, for that matter - can identify with her predicament.

It helps, of course, that Dietz's script is entrusted to the imaginative Vali Forrister (who smartly refrains from playing to stereotypes - which means you won't hear any Peggy Lee) to bring it to the Nashville stage. Her vision is evident throughout, and the very pure sense of joie de vivre that is felt throughout the ensemble's performance only underscores and gives validity to Forrister's exceptional aesthetic. The superb set design by Mitch Massaro (which provides a multi-level playing space for the piece) is accented by the masterful lighting design by Richard Davis, while Jami Anderson's costume design perfectly clothes the characters as they should be. Kristin McCalley's props design is pitch perfect, while Ryan Stufflebaum's projection photography ensures that Colin Peterson's visual media design is a highlight of the production, further proving the creative team's mastery of simple, yet effective, stage wizardry. The show's design aesthetic is deceptively simple and straight-forward, yet somehow it captures the sense of whimsy that is prevalent throughout Dietz's deftly handled script.

Bretton, one of my favorite actors (and if she's not one of yours yet, she most certainly will be after you see her as the tremendously likable Becky), delivers a performance that is attractive and accessible, perfectly modulated to help the audience warm to her instantly as she enters at curtain to pick up her messy living room and welcome us into her sort of messy life. Bretton has the ability to look the audience square in the eyes and to deliver her lines with such unconventional, however genuine, energy that you cannot help but be captivated by her every moment onstage. Her performance is practically transcendent as she takes you to the most unexpected places in Becky's heart. And did I mention how hot she looks?

As the two men vying for Becky's affection, Brock Hart (terrific as stolid, but caring husband Joe, the roofer) and Matthew Carlton (wonderful as Walter Flood, the ridiculously rich billboard baron of the Pacific Northwest) both create solid and sharply delineated portrayals to help drive home the choices and challenges confronting Becky. No wonder Becky's having such a hard time juggling her feelings and conflicting emotions in her relationships with these two kind and handsome men; neither one is written as the villain, nor are they romantic archetypes.

Josiah Gibbs embodies all that is expected of a 26-year-old man still living with the folks, while simultaneously investing in him something a bit different and off-key that keeps you interested in what happens to him. Jackie Johnson plays Kenni (Walter's privileged daughter who's grown tired of pampered rich boys) with a controlled warmth and sense of self that helps to better define the somewhat sketchily written character. Billy Rosenberg is delightfully annoying as Becky's nebbishy co-worker Steve, a granola-munching, recycling widower who consistently bores those around him with memories of his dear, departed Rita.  

But it's CJ Tucker as Ginger, a formerly rich friend of Walter's late wife, who threatens to pull the antique Persian rug out from under her co-stars with her wonderfully droll performance. Dripping disdain and radiating a sense of entitlement that only a lifetime of being rich can offer, Tucker plays the acerbic Ginger with panache, making even the most pedestrian of situations fairly sing with unexpected humor. They way Tucker manipulates Ginger's most throwaway lines is deliciously vile and appealing.

If it sounds like I completely lost my heart to Becky's New Car it's because I did - and I suspect your reaction will be similar to mine. Yet again, Actors Bridge has found the perfect offering for a hot Nashville summer. So go see it, damn it!

Becky's New Car. By Stephen Dietz. Directed by Vali Forrister. Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble at Belmont University's Black Box Theatre, Nashville. Through August 7. For details, visit the company website at www.actorsbridge.org. For ticket information, call (615) 498-4077.

Pictured: Kim Bretton (top photo) and Matthew Carlton, Kim Bretton and Brock Hart (bottom photo).


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