Monday, September 30, 2013

The Spoiler Problem

Some weeks ago when reviewing a show at NCRT in my Stage Matters column I mentioned something that some people regarded as a serious spoiler, on the order of telling the true meaning of "I see dead people."  In fact, it was about somebody who saw a dead person.  I thought it was obvious early in the first act, and at least one summary of the play backs me up on that.  But there were audience members who didn't think so, and apparently it was not fully revealed until near the end of the play.  For me, the main character's interaction with this dead son was the main interest of the story.

I did hesitate before mentioning it in my review, but without it there wasn't much to write about except the usual responses to the performances and music.  I found the same problem with Becky's New Car, which recently closed at Redwood Curtain.  In the NCJ review I went on vaguely about its contrivances and coincidences that were both predictable and fantastic.  But I couldn't say what they were.  Because: spoilers.

Now it can be told. Here's what they were: Becky has a husband and a son.  Early in the play she starts an affair with a man who has a daughter.  Her son is wooing a mysterious new girlfriend, and guess who she turns out to be?  The daughter, of course.  Later Becky's husband is hired to do roofing work for the man she is having the affair with, I think by the daughter.  These two families don't live close to each other and they are from vastly different socioeconomic worlds.  And yet, all those coincidences.  Except for the members of these two families there are two other characters, a man and a woman, themselves from different worlds.  They wind up together in the end.  All fantastic, and yet completely predictable, since these are all the people on stage.

If this were a blatant farce, it might get by.  But the level of realism is such that we're asked to think of these people as real, to appreciate and even identify with them.  Yet even on the purely comic level, the story of a Marx Brothers movie makes more real sense, however surrounded by wildness.

Further, the implications of what is going on are blithely ignored.  It doesn't have to be Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, but an affair has more moral and emotional weight than this, in some direction.  And if Becky had in fact dumped her husband for this new guy, and the son and daughter decide to get married (the first didn't happen, the second did), Becky's son would be marrying his sister-in-law.  We're entering Greek tragedy territory there.  But the play cheerfully ignores the implications.

The performances were entertaining and believable as usual at Redwood Curtain.  But the set was so nondescript that there wasn't even a set designer named in the program.  Normally I don't mind a minimal set and costuming.  In this case however the play makes little even metaphorical sense without the guiding metaphor of the title: the car.  The lure of the road.  Careening down the highway of life.  Etc.  But there was one conspicuous absence on the set.  There was no car, no representation of a car, no photo or painting or any sort of imagery (not even in the car dealership) that said "cars" in a way that the audience would absorb.  (There's at least a steering wheel in the publicity photo and poster, though not in the production.  Becky is depicted driving with other characters present and freaked out, but nothing like this ever happens in the play.)

The most dramatic events in the play are simply narrated very quickly at the end: a suicide and Becky's pretending she's dead for some significant period, and they all happen without much consequence.  Becky shows up again, her husband is a little pissed off but not for long, and Becky and Joe live happily ever after, driving down the highway in her new car.

So the full degree of this play's insipidity could not be noted without spoilers. In my darker moments (especially while writing a review) I think sometimes that's what some playwrights count on.

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