Arlington — Who hasn’t felt the lure of the road not taken? Who isn’t tempted, one time or another, by the notion of walking out the door, slipping behind the wheel, and taking off down the highway…to become someone else, someplace else?
When a woman says she wants a new car, it means she wants a new life, says the title character of Becky’s New Car at Theatre Arlington. But it’s never that simple, is it? And in this play by the prolific Texas-based Steven Dietz, Becky’s choice—to take a new life for a test drive—makes for a pleasant and pretty funny evening with a cast whose timing gets better as the show goes on.
It’s not comedy gold, but there’s enough of a sly gleam to please audiences, who will recognize their own restlessness and regrets up there onstage—and wonder if Becky will make wiser choices than they have.
Set in the Pacific Northwest (the play was commissioned by a Seattle man for his wife), we meet hardworking Becky (Melanie A. Mason), whose life is a commute between the car dealership where she works—low pay, long hours—and her home with friendly husband Joe (Michael Clark) and grown-but-not-gone grad student son Chris (Everett Lodics).
It seems an ordinary existence—life is “chaos and holidays,” says Becky—until one day, local billboard tycoon Walter (Dennis Maher) walks in to buy cars for his best employees and is instantly smitten with Becky, who he thinks (they’ve exchanged a series of half-finished sentences) has been widowed like him. Walter, apparently an impulse shopper on all counts, wants Becky to come spend time with him at his estate on a posh island enclave near Seattle.
Becky’s “ordinary life” is spent in cramped quarters (office here, home there) on either side of the stage, with Walter’s fir-treed estate given plenty of real estate at the back. Scenic designer Tony Curtis amusingly separates her two lives with a terrace railing that, on second glance, appears to be the curving top of a super-size steering wheel. And Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costume changes for the character highlight each “phase” of Becky’s journey.
“This is a bad idea,” Becky tells us. Did I mention Becky talks to the audience? No fourth wall here; she starts chatting to us about life—and asking what we think—from the first seconds of the play. But bad idea or not, she’s bent on having this adventure, and spends more and more time on Walter’s terrace while telling Joe she’s out of town to set up the dealership’s new mega-store.
Dietz twists the plot in a deceptively simple way: by making everyone in this romantic triangle a sympathetic figure. Mason’s Becky is honest and funny, like a best friend with a gift for deadpan delivery; Clark’s Joe is a working-guy charmer; Maher’s Walter is quirky and generous, a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. There are no villains here, so we’re left to wonder where things are going, and which of these nice fellas (if either) Becky will choose.
Mason, Maher (married UTA profs in real life) and Clark start slow, but get into a good comic rhythm in the second act, where events and conversations whirl faster, with overlapping lines and much confusion. Credit the actors’ comic chops for that, but also Julie Crawford’s direction—and Dietz’ script, too, which just seems funnier after intermission.
Lodics as son Chris spouts ten-dollar psych terms in a dry, funny way—he likes to analyze Mom in terms of what he’s lately learned in class. As Walter’s daughter Kenni, Kylie Reynolds is fresh and smart; Steve Iwanski has some funny bits as annoying co-worker Steve; and playing Ginger, a no-longer-rich neighbor of Walter (also looking for her new life), Michelle Friedman is just snarky enough to make us like her. And by way of tying up loose ends, Dietz makes sure each of the characters ends up connected to the others in one or more surprising ways.