Becky's New Car is fast and fun but doesn't stick with you
Playwright Steve Dietz never bores me. His dialogue is usually smart and his imagination fresh. He likes to come up with intricate plot twists, bend theatrical form and refuse the audience a satisfyingly tied-up — or even entirely comprehensible — ending. Becky's New Car is the lightest of his works I've seen, with a plot that comes close to conventional and just a couple of those dizzying, absurdist Dietzian moments. It's a lot of fun to watch, but the second act is messier and less focused than the first, and the play doesn't particularly resonate once you've left the theater.
Becky's life is straightforward and painfully ordinary. She lives with her roofer husband, Joe, and college-student son, Chris, and works far too many hours at a car dealership. In one of the play's most charming conceits (the charm aided by the very intimate environment of the tiny theater), she invites the audience into her reality. She gives them tasks: collate some of her papers, help her get dressed to go out — oh, and would anyone like a soda? The interaction with the audience is unpretentious, friendly and low-key. Hyper-wealthy Walter arrives one evening just as Becky is about to leave work, wanting to buy nine expensive new cars as gifts for his employees. He's newly widowed, forlorn and a little adrift, and he promptly falls for Becky — who he assumes is widowed, too. After trying once or twice to disabuse him of the notion, she gives in to his fantasy. And so begins her attempt to live two lives.
There's just a whisper of a deeper theme here. Like Walter, Becky's co-worker Steve is a widower. He exploits his status mercilessly for sympathy and attention, but he's also really hurting. And there's an unseen customer who has ordered a luxury car to soothe the pain of her bereavement, a customer with fingernails as black and beautiful as night. You can't help contrasting these people's losses with the cavalier way that Becky treats Joe, who happens to be one of those loving, considerate and quietly decent spouses most women would kill for.
Some of the dialogue is wonderfully clever. Chris is a psychology major, for example, with a habit of categorizing everyone else's personalities and motivations. He's pretentious, but sometimes right to the point. We find him babbling about self-actualization, for example, some time before Becky sets out in search of her own. And soon after she's asked a woman in the front row to do her collating, and the woman, after a moment's disbelief, has actually enlisted her neighbor's help and started sorting pages and stapling, Chris mentions situationism — that is, a tendency to do what's expected of you, even when you're not sure why.
But then, having introduced all these interesting people, the playwright himself seems to lose interest, and the characterizations go south along with the plotting. As the writing weakens, some of the actors respond with broader, less subtle performances. Walter's once-rich and now financially fallen friend Ginger is pretty two-dimensional as written, and we don't get much insight into his daughter's psyche, either. (What does she really think about his relationship with Becky, and why?) Jan Cleveland and Mallory Young play Ginger and Walter's daughter, respectively, as standard, non-individualized, faintly British upper-class types. Michelle Grimes is a very congenial Becky, but even she seems a little distracted by the second act, and so does Andy Anderson, an otherwise pleasurably solid Joe. In the first act, co-worker Steve has a brilliant monologue about a puppy, and Charles Wingerter delivers it with equal brilliance — balancing on a perfect knife edge between anguish and absurdity — but in the second, his Steve has become a caricature. Brian Kusic's Chris is affable throughout, however, and Jim Hunt's masterful performance as Walter is at once touching, real and funny.
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