A Mixed Ride

Jim Aina, Amy K. Sullivan and Shaun Dikilato in ‘Becky's New Car.' Photo by Erich Steinwandt

Jim Aina, Amy K. Sullivan and Shaun Dikilato in ‘Becky’s New Car.’ Photo by Erich Steinwandt

Becky’s New Car at Manoa Valley Theatre idles a while before it gets revving, but once it’s in full throttle there’s a thrilling period of mayhem as a string of potentially scandalous situations unfolds. That’s not to say this is one of MVT’s more polished offerings. A compelling quality of MVT is that it takes chances, and some are golden. A few prudish audience members apparently walked out during the theater’s run of controversial Spring Awakening, but it was a breathtaking work of performing art.

Kudos to the theater for taking a chance with Becky’s New Car. It’s experimental, relying on quite a bit of audience participation (don’t worry, it’s incidental; nothing to shirk away from). In fact, the production completely does away with the fourth wall ― well, now and then. Some characters are aware of the audience, though not always, while others don’t seem to be aware of the audience at all. It’s an amusing conceit, but does it work? And why bother? … Perhaps simply because it’s novel and therefore interesting. But the concept doesn’t enrich the storyline or experience except for eliciting a few laughs.

Naughty shenanigans promise a revelatory comeuppance, but the plot drives us right to the edge of a cliff, and then doesn’t plunge over. The storyline, casting and characterization are messy, with the characters seeming uncomfortable in their skin, not quite knowing whether to play their parts straight or to veer into slapstick. It’ll shift into comedy, but then serious themes of anger or deception kick into gear, only to be dead-ended by a dissonant comedic moment. Playwright Steven Dietz is a prolific author, with more than 30 plays making the rounds at colleges and community theaters, but judging by the frivolity of this particular show, it’s understandable why it hasn’t hit the hallowed lights of New York City yet.

That being said, the production makes for an enjoyable and entertaining night out. And it allows us to live the dream of chasing a more fulfilling life through Becky. Becky Foster (Amy K. Sullivan) is a middle-aged, under-appreciated mom and housewife. When she first walks on stage, she’s a dead-ringer for Molly Shannon in any of her SNL work. Shannon’s Sally O’Malley “I’m 50 years old” skit comes to mind. Sullivan commences in lighthearted banter with the audience, and you half expect her to take it over the top, but she doesn’t.

Despite its flaws, the play engages us in deeper moments, where we really do commiserate with Becky and her morally questionable choices. Sullivan rarely gets a chance to go offstage, and in improvisational bursts boldly puts herself in the hands of the audience. She gives us a solid ride throughout. Inconsistencies in ensemble line-delivery, however, find some characters playing it serious while others like Stu Hirayama as Steve, Becky’s co-worker at an automobile dealership, move into farce, which doesn’t benefit his character.

Jim K. Aina as Joe Foster, a name that suits this “Joe Schmo” roofer, is Becky’s blas√© husband, and Shaun Dikilato is their son, Chris, a philosophy-spouting (make that “psycho-babbling”) stoner who doesn’t quite come across believably as either a philosopher or a stoner. We’ve seen Aina as the good-natured husband ― for instance, in Kumu Kahua’s recent Shoyu on Rice ― and he plays the role here with strength and just gets better and better throughout, especially into Act II. He has some meaty scenes that definitely get the diesel pumping, in particular, a scene with Dwight T. Martin.

Martin, a familiar face as MVT’s producing director who takes the stage every opening night to welcome the audience to each new production, is the forbidden candy Becky inadvertently develops a craving for. His performance as wealthy, widowed Walter Flood is pure unadulterated delight, and yes, that’s an unapologetic adultery connotation. With his straight comedic delivery, every moment Martin’s on-stage is a richly imbued one.

Audience interaction at key moments (with yours truly included), finds us rooting for Becky to accept a chance at some passion. Yet, just as the plot turns rambunctious, it suddenly does an about-face and drives down Serious Lane, even toward Tear-jerker Avenue, only to then throw us for a U-turn right at a peak moment and get frivolous again.

MVT always uses its space creatively and does so again here. The stage is divided into three separate spaces and the interplay between the three, as far as time, place and interpersonal connections, adds a playful dimension to the setting.

Becky represents any of us, looking for a spark, a parallel road that delivers a more seductive ride. Her journey, and that of the audience, has its potholes, but also its engaging scenery. It doesn’t give anything away to say that the conclusion is neither a syrupy ride into the sunset nor a profound contemplation on relationships.

It’s just Becky adjusting to a new ride, as we all find ourselves doing from time to time.

the TICKET stub
When: Through Feb. 1
Where: Manoa Valley Theatre
Cost: $20-$39
More Info: 988-6131, manoavalleytheatre.com