There is more information to be found in the escalating domestic crisis at the core of Peter Hedges’ “Good as New” than one might need. With its glaring metaphors concerning life’s journey as an automobile driving lesson, the play speeds off course from its highway to an inevitable crash. What keeps the play on the road so long is the terse conversational language and some keenly focused acting.
A turbulent day in the life of 16-year-old Maggie (Jennifer Dundas) begins at the wheel of the family car. That momentous turning point in a teenager’s life is the acquisition of a driver’s license, and Maggie takes it to the limit. She chauffeurs her adoring father (John Spencer) to the airport, and their small talk involves the improvement of the world, car phones, traffic statistics and life’s mistakes. The lawyer-lecturer parent sums up the latter as “happy accidents.”
Maggie next brings her mother (Laura Esterman) home from the hospital, where she has had elective cosmetic surgery. Jan is a bit of a backseat driver and an obsessive motor-mouth. Their discussion begins with a name-dropping list of personalities and first ladies who have had a nip and a tuck, with daughter adamantly defending the natural process of aging.
“We don’t cuddle,” Jan eventually reveals about her marriage, “We collide!” She suggests Dad is having an affair, which justifies her makeover. Maggie confronts her father on the way home from the airport and gets her first speeding ticket in the process.
Character analysis firmly in place, the second act offers an evening traffic jam in the master bedroom. Accusations are hurled, tempers flare, and Dad admits to an affair with a 25-year-old girl, which is nothing compared with the lurid confessional Maggie spews, right down to the rose tattoo upon her rump. The family photo album, with its smiling faces and happy memories, is now nothing but a “book of lies,” and even Sally Jessy Raphael couldn’t console the glaring dysfunction that’s arisen.
Dundas enacts the troubled teen as if wired like a time bomb ready to explode, and holds audience interest. Esterman, head wrapped in bandages and staring through blackened, swollen eyes, is both funny and tragic as a desperate woman determined to survive.
The first act is confined to the two front seats of a car, with movement effectively accented by flashing lights and traffic sounds. Director Brian Mertes has harnessed the wandering dissertations into a fluent sustaining pattern, but the battle-scarred terrain is all too familiar.