Friday, October 23, 2009

review of *Becky's New Car*

(seen Oct. 21 at Artists Rep in Portland; closes Oct. 25)

After productions in Seattle and Minneapolis, this is only the third production ever of Steven Dietz’s new comedy, in which the playwright takes a sit com premise and develops it in unexpected and ingenious ways to achieve a conclusion that (as good literature often does) blends comedy with reminders of truths that we already know.
Ben Waterhouse of Willamette Week didn’t like it, I gather, saying that another Dietz play currently being performed in Portland, Passion, is much superior. (I don’t know Passion, so I can’t compare ‘em, but I can mention that Passion stars David Seitz, familiar to Interplayers audiences from God’s Man in Texas and several other shows a few years back.)
Becky’s New Car is already scheduled for a half-dozen regional productions, and there will be more. There should be.
It’s easy to snark at conventional premises, as if they alone determine the quality of the ensuing hour and a half of an evening’s theater. But what lifts Becky’s above the conventional is what Dietz does with his starting material.
The thing is, you know, I wish I could write a play like this.

Becky (Marilyn Stacey, apparently an Artists Rep veteran -- and very engaging and charismatic, and not just because her ample bosom was on display most of the evening (all that bending over to do housework!) -- and there’s an essay just in that, how she won over the audience; some people just have it, and Stacey is one) ... but back to Becky -- she introduces us by enlisting the audience with help as she vacuums the living room, picks up after family, puts buckets under roof leaks, serves beer to a couple of guys in the front row. She’s got a schlumpy roofer of a husband (nice guy; smart, too) and a 26-year-old son who still lives in their basement. To make ends meet, she has a harried job as an office manager at a car dealership. When a mega-wealthy widower shows up late one night to buy a fleet of cars, she kinda-sorta lets him get the impression that her husband is, well, not around anymore, and wouldn’t it be interesting if this oddball Prince Charming might throw some bucks and excitement in the direction of a middle-class gal like Becky?
OK, so the rich guy is too convenient (SO rich, SO addled, such a goofball) and his society-lady friend is barely sketched in, and it’s more than a bit coincidental that young lovers get their families tangled in complications that may date back centuries, all the way up to crummy TV comedies ... there are some improvements Dietz could still make.
But let’s also recognize his achievement. He has written an entertaining divertissement that lots of married, middle-aged working women will relate to. (Anybody stuck in a rut, too.) It’s full of one-liners. Most of the characters aren’t merely flat. He has investigated the lure of the taboo: What if I went wild for just one last fling? What if I went for the path not taken? Put a little guilt-free spice into my life?
Except that Becky’s fling doesn’t come guilt-free. Dietz sets obstacles before about three couples and manages to keep Becky's husband and would-be lover ignorant of each other for the maximum time allowable by law. (He knows how to scramble and unscramble a plot, in other words.)
All the while, he's fully characterizing a couple of the aggrieved parties (the wronged husband, a widowed co-worker of Becky’s) and ends up with a lightly-touched-upon rumination on living our lives in the context of death. (Yes, this sit com takes a serious, meaningful turn.) It's about considering the consequences of our actions, realizing that self-indulgence has costs, inspiring us to realize that the way to grass-is-greener may not mean hopping the fence but putting in the work (aerate that lawn and mulch those clippings, man!) that will make the grass you already have seem a bit more verdant. 
The wonderful set design, by Lawrence Larsen, speaks to the dream of the open road that many of us still seem to possess -- at least those of us raised back when muscle cars had giant tail fins. Allen Nause directs so as to maintain the slapstick pace Dietz must have called for in the script, with Becky tearing off her housecoat and careening into phone calls and faxes over in that fussily cluttered office of hers that's just a few paces away.

[photo: from the Portland Mercury: from left, Marilyn Stacey as Becky Foster, David Bodin as Walter Flood, and Susan Coromel as Ginger in director Allen Nause’s production of Steven Dietz’s Becky’s New Car at Artists Repertory Theatre, Sept.-Oct. 2009]

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