Larry Coen sees the set for the first time and says, “We have a slide,” with one of the hard-to-read smiles that have made him an in-demand comic actor around town. This time out, Coen is adding to his considerable résumé as a director with “Becky’s New Car,” beginning performances Friday at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
The curving plastic playground slide and the rest of the brightly colored, game-show-like set are all part of the concept. “It’s the game of life,” he explains.
Inspired by the Milton Bradley board game, yes, but mostly by the lower-case one we’re all playing. Steven Dietz’s 2008 comedy finds wife and mother Becky at a personal crossroads, and the universe keeps giving her surprises, little gifts that push her in risky new directions.
“We started thinking that board games are places where that happens,” Coen explains. “ ‘Collect $200.’ ‘You’ve just won the lottery.’ Turning over those cards has that kind of magic that seemed to fit the logic of what we are doing.”
Dietz’s script doesn’t demand realism, and that suits Coen and set designer Shelley Barish just fine. “If you stage it realistically,” Coen says, “you end up with a brown house with a lot of clutter, and I could stay home and look at that.”
There are practical reasons for their approach too, especially in a play called “Becky’s New Car.”
“You have a lot of [scenes] in the car, and I don’t care who you are, unless you’re the Royal National Theatre, you ain’t bringing a car on the stage,” Coen says. “To me, how can you have a realistic living room with lamps and sofas and bookshelves and tchotchkes, and then suddenly your car is just a chair and a wheel? That to me is a disappointment. So I wanted to say, first of all, let’s have our central image be not a step down but a satisfying part of our whole world.”
This is a comedy, but it confronts issues about marriage and fidelity and happiness. Becky has issues with her routine-driven marriage, her layabout son, her unfulfilling job at a car dealership. Then she’s given a chance to change it all.
“I don’t think that people leaving the theater are going to say, ‘That was cute, where do you want to eat?’ ” Coen says. “I think it’s one of those plays where possibly one member of a couple will be very quiet until they’re in the car on the way home.”
That comment drew a cackle from the production’s Becky, Celeste Oliva, who played Xi Yan at the Lyric Stage last year in “Chinglish,” which Coen also directed.
“It will be interesting to see what people say, because every couple has their own idea of what makes them work, how to keep it together, what’s morally wrong [or not],” she says, adding, “I’m married, so I have very strong opinions.”
She and Coen had worked together in “Shear Madness” before “Chinglish.” Getting comfortable with Becky has taken a while. “In ‘Chinglish,’ with Xi Yan, I loved her, I wanted to create this character, I wanted to be her,” Oliva says. “With Becky, in the beginning I liked her, and then I worked on her and found I didn’t like her. And now after working on her more, I think she’s fun.”
There was infidelity in “Chinglish,” and Coen says it drew a palpable audience response. “There’s a certain posture people have when they stiffen their backs and kind of pull their bodies into their seats a little bit,” he says, a silent way of communicating that they’re uncomfortable with what’s going on. Among the “Becky” cast, rehearsals have brought vivid discussions of relationships, honesty, and communication, Coen says.
“The more people have to say in rehearsal, the more you go, ‘This is touching a nerve.’ Sometimes you direct a play and people have nothing to say. But this one, everybody has a lot to say, and everybody has a lot of stories to share and some very strong feelings. And that has excited me.”
Coen is one of Boston’s busiest theater people, starting with his job as artistic director of the City Stage Co. At about this time last year he was directing “Chinglish,” which earned good reviews and Elliot Norton Award nominations for the show and Oliva. Then he directed “The Divine Sister” — in Key West in January, not a bad gig.
In the spring Coen tackled multiple roles in Ryan Landry’s “M” for the Huntington Theatre Company. Last summer he played Launce in a well-reviewed “Two Gentlemen of Verona” for Shakespeare on the Common before a nightly audience of thousands. He also played a supporting role in the Lyric’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” this fall.
“It was a good year, it was a fun year,” he says. “But the reviews, the audience reaction — you have no control over. So usually when I’m in something successful, my first response is always relief.”
When “Becky” ends, Coen hopes to finish a play he’s writing, then he’ll prepare for a role in the Lyric’s “Death of a Salesman,” which opens in February.
Directing is more taxing for him than acting. “I do a lot of education, a lot of working with kids. It’s almost as if [teachers] have a chord in their head, a constant note playing for each and every student in that room,” he says. “They’ve got an ongoing deep piece of music that is the classroom, where each student is an individual note on their G clef, and they’re all going simultaneously. And I feel like that’s what you need to do as a director.”
A trace of his comic persona creeps back into his face and voice as he delivers the kicker: “That’s part of what makes it so exhausting.”
Boston Ballet pays respects
Boston Ballet will dedicate its opening night performance of “The Nutcracker” Friday to dancer and choreographer Samuel S. Kurkjian, who died at Massachusetts General Hospital Nov. 18 at age 76. He joined the Ballet in 1968 as a principal dancer and ballet master and went on to become the company’s first resident choreographer. Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen called Kurkjian “a huge part of Boston Ballet’s history” as well as a dear friend.
The company has established the Samuel Kurkjian Fund for New Choreography in his memory. Donations will support the projects of emerging choreographers. Contributions to the fund may be sent care of Boston Ballet, Attn: Ilisa Hurowitz, 19 Clarendon St., Boston MA 02116.