A wry, somber comedy about some small explosions rocking the remains of a nuclear family, Peter Hedges’ “Good as New” has just enough tart observations about how a few home truths can turn the inquiring idealism of youth to disillusion — sometimes in the course of a single day — to make up for a subject that’s hardly new and an execution that isn’t quite as good as its initial promise.
The first actis a trio of tete-a-tetes in the front seat of a car on 16 -year-old Maggie’s (Robin Mary Florence) first day at the wheel. Driving her father (she calls him Dennis) to the airport, the spunky, self-possessed young woman tries to inspire her laconic dad with some enthusiasm for the speech he’s about to give. With her bright eyes just as often turned adoringly on him as on the road, she recalls the galvanizing effect his accomplished record as a civil-rights lawyer had on her classmates when he gave a similar speech at her school.
There are delicately placed glints of foreboding in her patter. She remembers the answer he advised the kids to give when asked about future plans — “I expect to be surprised” — and interlaces some golden rules of driving into her spiel, one of which — “It’s when you feel safest that you’re least safe” — she thinks she may have invented.
Later, as Maggie drives her mom Jan (Linda Gehringer) home from that morning’s facelift, she goes on the offensive, accusing Jan of betraying the ideals she once held in succumbing to the temptation to go under the knife. With the merciless self-righteousness of youth, Maggie calls her mother’s facelift a form of lying, and says proudly, “I want age to happen to me!” Jan’s dry response: “And guess what? You’ll have that choice.” Worn out by Maggie’s onslaught, Jan lets slip that her decision may have been motivated by her belief that Dennis is having an affair. “You wanted truth,” she bitterly adds.
In the third car conversation, Maggie confronts her father, who is instantly angered that Jan would involve Maggie — thereby indirectly confirming Jan’s suspicions. As Maggie fights back tears of disbelief, Dennis adds that Jan, too, had once “strayed.”
But the carefully structured first act, which builds smoothly to its emotional climax, gives way to a second act that takes far too long to get back to the heart of the story. A funny and marvelously delivered monologue from Jan about cosmetic surgery (Frank Gifford’s face is “like a pie crust with eye holes”) winds on aimlessly, as the play dances around its emotional center for what seems like an hour before ending with a series of short, hysterical bursts of anguished truth-telling and recrimination that are distinguished from other divorce-drama theatrics only by a slightly lurid excess.
That girl in the driver’s seat is problematic, as well. Florence is patently unconvincing as a girl of 16 (the actress is a college graduate, her bio informs), and her game efforts to impersonate the brash perkiness of a dangerously inquisitive teenager serve to point up the rather too-poised and polished dialogue of this girl, whip-smart though she may be. An actress closer to the character’s age might have been able to work against this problem in the writing with a more natural juvenile mien; Florence is too much a trained actress. The strain shows, and the character never takes on the jagged contours of a real teenager.
Stephen Rowe has the least to do as Dennis, but he makes the most of his moments, revealing with precise comic timing that his mistress is “Almost 30 26 next month.” It’s Gehringer’s performance that carries the play. With her red-ringed eyes peering warily out from a face wrapped in bandages, she makes casually but achingly understandable how a woman of intelligence and spirit brings herself to go under the knife. Neither desperate nor delusional, she’s clear-eyed and resigned about the world she lives in, and Ehringer movingly conveys the pathos of her simple need to have people continue to look at her in the way a young woman is looked at.
Martin Benson’s direction is smooth and effective, though that central piece of miscasting must be laid at his door. Tony Fanning’s act one set, a jumble of colorful Chicago-area road signs, is delightful.