Perhaps the highest praise that can be given to Steven Dietz’s praiseworthy new comedy is that it’s funny. Not ironic. Not hysterical in a slapsticky kind of way. Just gently and consistently funny — right up to the point that it’s touching, and then even a little bit after that. In Kurt Beattie’s premiere production for Seattle’s ACT Theater, “Becky’s New Car” takes the audience on a smart, comic cruise through the perils of middle-aged longing and regret.
Our tour guide is Becky (Kimberly King), a somewhat content, somewhat frazzled wife and mother who works at a car dealership. Her husband Joe (Charles Leggett) is solid if unexciting and uncommunicative. Her son Chris (Benjamin Harris), a graduate student in psychology, still lives at home and drives his parents crazy by constantly diagnosing them with various syndromes and disorders.
One day Becky is wishing for … something. Another life. A second chance. Anything at all unexpected. And then it happens, in the shape of a rich suitor (Michael Winters) who mistakenly believes she’s a widow. But the results are a little too unexpected, and soon Becky’s life accelerates out of her control.
The story may be conventional, but it’s well told, with grace and humor. Without being mean or cheap or mocking, Dietz points out the folly and heartbreak of the conflicting human desires for the new-and-exciting and the loved-and-familiar.
Director Beattie finds just the right, light pacing and tone, with a group of crackling good comic actors with whom he has worked for years — including Winters, R. Hamilton Wright as Becky’s neurotic co-worker and Suzanne Bouchard as an heiress on the prowl. Leggett lends the lumpish Joe an appealing air of intelligence, while King grounds Becky enough to keep her life-leap from seeming improbable.
“Becky’s New Car” is the first play commissioned as part of ACT’s New Works for the American Stage program. Launched by a gift from donor Charles Staadecker on behalf of his wife Benita, the program matches patrons to playwrights to generate new scripts. To kick it off, ACT turned to Dietz (“God’s Country,” “Halcyon Days”), a part-time Seattle resident who has had numerous plays — including five premieres — presented by the theater.
In keeping with the project’s collaborative nature, Dietz lowers the fourth wall at a number of points. The play is staged in the round at ACT, and Becky/King repeatedly turns to audience members around her to help her with various props and costume changes. Once or twice the device becomes a bit awkward, but for the most part, the opening-weekend audience responded enthusiastically; a few were so swept into the spirit they called out unsolicited suggestions or commentary. It made for a delightful ride — one in which even the backseat drivers were having fun.