Steven Dietz’s “Becky’s New Car” begins as an occasionally hilarious screwball comedy and gives way to a disarmingly thoughtful drama about the nature of love, fidelity and second chances. Based on the play’s first act, which is snappy and broad and breathlessly paced, you wouldn’t imagine that it could transition so seamlessly into its touching closing scenes. It’s a tricky balancing act, but “Becky’s New Car,” crisply directed by Christopher Wooley, pulls it off.
The show, which premiered this weekend at Spokane’s Civic Theatre, stars Kathie Doyle-Lipe as Becky Foster, who has been married to her loving husband, a roofer named Joe (Steven Blount), for nearly 30 years. At home she’s always picking up after her philosophizing grown son Chris (Michael Barfield) and waiting on delivery pizzas. At work she’s perpetually in over her head: As the office manager at a car dealership, she does a little bit of everything, juggling paperwork and angry customer phone calls and staying long past when the doors have been locked.
During a late night at the dealership, Becky’s life is forever upended when Walter Flood (Gary Pierce) stumbles into it. A socially awkward billboard baron whose wife has recently passed away, Walter is looking to purchase nine new automobiles for his employees, and Becky agrees to assist him. But when she makes an offhanded comment about Joe, Walter misunderstands and assumes Becky is a widow, and he leaves her with his phone number.
Becky continues seeing Walter, whose waterfront estate is a three-hour drive from her house, concocting a story to Joe about receiving a promotion at a faraway megastore. Is Becky living a second life because she has found genuine love with Walter, or does he represent something more abstract, a new start and break from the monotony of her daily routines? As she becomes more and more involved, there’s a higher probability that everything could come crashing down, and yet she continues to deceive both Walter and Joe.
Plots like these are difficult to navigate, and the manufactured coincidences of “Becky’s New Car” sometimes resemble an episode of “Three’s Company.” I was occasionally reminded of the Idiot Plot, a term film critic Roger Ebert devised to describe a deliberately complicated storyline that would fall apart if only the characters used a little common sense.
That’s not to say that “Becky’s New Car” employs an Idiot Plot, because it actually sidesteps one. All Becky has to do is tell Walter that her husband is still alive – she keeps saying things like, “We’re still together,” which Walter naturally misinterprets – and none of the chaos of the play’s third act would happen. There are a number of opportunities for her to say something, to be as clear and concise as possible, and yet she chooses to keep quiet.
Dietz doesn’t let Becky off easily, which keeps the play fresh and interesting. She’s as selfish as she is apprehensive, a woman who makes a lot of poor decisions and yet is always aware of it, and her actions leave a number of innocent people shattered in their wake. In fact, Becky very nearly becomes the villain of her own story. It’s refreshing to see a comic plot that doesn’t consider heavy themes as if they’re in black and white. All of the characters here are contradictions, smart and sensible people weighed down by their own insecurities.
But I realize I’ve made “Becky’s New Car” sound almost like a dirge, which it most certainly isn’t. It’s a farce through and through, a comedy of escalating complications that has Becky skittering from one location to another as an innocent lie builds and tangles into a knot of deception.
It also demolishes the fourth wall, as Doyle-Lipe interacts with the audience and involves them in her decision-making process. At one point, she asks for help fixing a drip in her ceiling. She polls a small group about whether she should attend a party at Walter’s (the audience’s response was a resounding “no,” though Becky doesn’t listen). She asks for further help getting ready for said party, and three women were brought down to hold on to her clothes as she changed into fancy attire.
Wooley’s cast is up to the challenge of the show, deftly balancing slapstick and verbal dexterity with true emotional resonance. It’s a very funny play, but its best moments are its quietest, when the characters break away from the anarchy of the plot and deal with one another. The heart of “Becky’s New Car” lies in a monologue near the end, as Doyle-Lipe, alone on stage, fantasizes about hopping behind the wheel of a sleek, black sedan and driving away until she can’t go any farther. It’s a haunting moment that cuts to a fundamental truth about life and love, and it elevates “Becky’s New Car” beyond just another goofy comedy.