Some plays are like the Emerald City of Oz. They are best enjoyed by skimming along the surface. Examine them too closely, and the greasepaint turns to grease. Becky’s New Car is one of those plays.
Everybody’s so nice. Becky Foster (Janet Luby), a title examiner for a local car dealer, is a sweet, hardworking lady with reassuringly middle-class values. Her husband Joe (Jim Reiter) is an honest man, supportive and good-hearted. Their son Chris (Davis Chandler Hasty) is a little pretentious, but, hey, what grad student studying psychology isn’t?
Becky’s co-worker Steve (Nigel Reed) is a bit of an ass, but his wife just died, so let’s cut him some slack. And Walter Flood (Jim Chance), the millionaire with whom Becky commits adultery, is just a prince of a fellow, his pursuit of a married woman mitigated by his persistent, unreasoning belief that her husband is dead.
And you’re nice too, Mr. and Ms. Audience Member, so if cast members occasionally ask you to install toilet paper in the bathroom or have a beer with them or help them get dressed, be a good sport. Regrettably, your role will be uncredited and uncompensated, but everyone will get to see that you’re as nice as anybody in the play.
Becky’s New Car is a play about a nice person who does a terrible thing for no good reason, and the great trick of it is that it compels us to like that person notwithstanding her bad act. Bay Theatre could not have found a better person to pull that trick off than Luby, who imbues Becky with a sort of Mary Tyler Moore-type energy which elevates congenital indecisiveness into a commentary on the world’s moral ambiguity. It’s complicated, she seems to say with every shrug and headshake. When she explains that she responded to Walter’s importuning with an expression “halfway between ‘uh-huh’ and ‘eeew!’” you know everything you need to know about her: a person who can find the compromise between those two noises can find the compromise between anything.
Becky’s deal is this: she is happily married to a good man, and together they struggle to survive in a bad economy and to support their son, who lives in the basement while he works toward his degree. One evening, while she is working late in the car lot, Walter comes in and makes an enormous purchase. Against all evidence, he concludes that she, like he, has recently lost a spouse to death. She protests, but her explanations become less and less vigorous until, eventually, they appear in his-and-her bathrobes on the back porch of his estate.
When a woman says she wants a new car, it means she wants a new life, Becky explains in one of her many asides to the audience. (The characters’ constant breaching of the fourth wall eventually becomes a running metafictional joke for playwright Steven Dietz). But the only thing that appears wrong with the life she already has is that she’s not rich. Becky thus is the sort of person who says “yes” because she lacks the moral energy to say “no”.
Dietz, like his artistic predecessor Neil Simon, writes with great skill but – at least here – without discernable purpose or moral vision. To cover the play’s gaps, Bay has assembled a formidable cast, and it’s possible – even easy – to watch the production without being bothered by its wider implications. Luby and Reed are particularly satisfying. Luby succeeds in making the adulterous Becky appealing, and Reed manages to make Steve, whose wife has died tragically, comic. He does so by turning his grief into an occasion for self-aggrandizement; in a weird way, you realize, he’s getting off on the attention he’s receiving as he loudly proclaims his loneliness and bad luck. He does this not just by voice and gesture but through the core of his being: when he is not speaking he holds himself with a stiff solemnity, as though he expects that some offstage artist is painting “Grief, Personified” with himself as the model. It is, in its own small way, an acting clinic, and almost in itself worth the price of admission.
Reiter and Chance, playing the two men who sleep with Becky, also turn in first-rate performances. Reiter, who appears to be making his professional debut after a distinguished career in community theater, gives us a Joe who is not a fool and not what we think of when we think of a cuckold, but rather a man in full, whose love is evident in the knowing ways he acknowledges his wife’s strengths and indulges her weaknesses. He is, in John Lennon’s phrase, a “working-class hero”, and, like Lennon’s hero, he’s something to see. The veteran Chance washes Walter’s smooth urbanity in a deep bath of sincerity so powerful that it removes the stain of implausibility surrounding his irrational belief that Joe is dead. Chance and director James Gallagher chose to treat this particularly troubling plot point by pretending that it is natural and undeniable, which is probably the right decision.
A strong cast – I also like Alicia Sweeney as a sort of femme fatale facing hard times, and Hasty and Elena Crall are convincing as young lovers – good pacing on Gallagher’s part and excellent technical, particularly Ken Sheats’ set and Eric Lund’s lighting, can make Becky’s New Car a sweet experience. To avoid a sour aftertaste, ignore that man behind the curtains.
Becky’s New Car runs thru Jan 8, 2012 at Bay Theatre, 275 West St, Annapolis, MD.
Becky’s New Car
By Steven Dietz
Directed by Jim Gallagher
Produced by Bay Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Two hours ten minutes, with one intermission