“Becky’s New Car” makes no bones about driving through theater’s fourth wall. The first word out of Becky Foster’s mouth, in this rollicking 2008 comedy from Steven Dietz, is a “hello” to the audience. At the current Lyric Stage Company production, Celeste Oliva, in the title role, asks an audience member to help with a leaky roof, and she brings volunteers onstage to advise her about an important decision in her personal life.
But Becky, “a woman in her late 40s,” still needs that new vehicle to keep up with the show’s frantic pace. Dietz sets his play in four primary locations of “an American city very much like Seattle.” There’s the living room of the house Becky shares with her roofer husband of 28 years, Joe, and their son Chris. There’s her office cubicle at Bill Buckley Lexus-Saturn-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Home of the Fifty-Thousand-Mile Smile. There’s her car, the old one. And finally there’s the terrace of the estate belonging to Walter Flood, the wealthy widower she meets late one night at the dealership when he comes to buy nine cars as gifts for his employees. All four venues are “on stage” at the same time, and Becky has to race from one to the other. If Oliva appears to be late getting to a scene, it’s not the actress’s fault — Dietz expects as much.
The key to “Becky’s New Car” is a remark made by her late friend Rita to the effect that when a woman “says she wants a new car, she wants a new life.” Becky’s new life begins when Walter mistakes her for a widow, and Becky can’t get the words out to set him straight. She winds up living on his estate during the week, when Joe thinks she’s at work. Things get complicated when Walter and Joe wind up talking on the phone and Walter’s daughter, Kenni, enters the story in unexpected ways.
Dietz advises directors of the play to “simplify” rather than try to create realistic locales. The set that director Larry Coen and set designer Shelley Barish have devised isn’t exactly simple, but it’s a hoot. The stage floor conjures a board game with its snaking paths; on the back wall are more paths, with the four locales depicted, and a white door with a question mark on it (as in “What’s behind Door No. 1?”). Big purple cubes combine to create the Fosters’ sofa, Becky’s office, and Walter’s dinner table. There’s a bottle-green chute, down which Becky enters, upstage right, and a bottle-green ladder upstage left.
Those locale pictures light up to tell you where the action is, but between Coen’s direction and the quality of the acting, you don’t really need any help. Most of the cast do seem rather young for the roles they’re playing — which, apart from Chris and Kenni, range in age from late 40s to 60s. But Oliva is a vivacious Becky who ad-libs with aplomb and effects a remarkable onstage transformation from frumpy housewife to glamour girl.
Mike Dorval’s Joe looks unimaginative and unromantic, but he’s a smart, commanding figure with a sense of humor who might make you wonder what Becky sees in Walter. Will McGarrahan’s courtly if befuddled Walter, all hunched shoulders, gives Joe about as much competition as Dietz allows. Alex Marz gets Chris’s transition from eternal psychology student to aspiring Romeo right; Samantha Richert seems an oddly brittle and entitled Kenni, but maybe she’s the sour in this sweet and sour play. There’s solid support from Jaime Carrillo as Becky’s earnest co-worker Steve and Kortney Adams — hilarious when snookered — as Walter’s friend Ginger. I could imagine a more sober “Becky’s New Car,” but this one is a fun ride.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.