Oliva Shines in Lyric’s Quirky ‘Becky’s New Car’ (4 Stars)

‘Becky’s New Car’ Written By Steven Dietz; Directed by Larry Coen; Scenic Design by Shelley Barish; Costumes by Emily Woods Hogue; Produced by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 140 Clarendon St., Boston through December 22nd.

There’s an old saying, “Don’t wish too hard for what you want, or you just might get it,” a warning that dates at least as far back as the 1902 short story, “The Monkey’s Paw” where a family that is granted three wishes receives nothing but heartache and tragedy instead. While that may not quite be the message of “Becky’s New Car”- a look at the life of a middle-aged working mom and wife whose life is missing ‘something’ – the title character certainly gets more than she bargained for when she tempts the Fates. Playing now at the Lyric (through December 22nd) this enjoyable production is comical and surreal but also deceptively poignant.

When we first meet Becky (the terrific Celeste Oliva), she’s a stressed out mess, nagging her grad school student son about not having a job or a girlfriend, bending over backwards for her co-workers during late nights at the car dealership she works at, and enduring her widowed workmate who can’t stop recounting the tragic ending of his wife’s life (although the story of her demise provides a lot of laughs for the audience). But she also has a well-grounded, hard-working roofer husband named Joe who adores her, faults and all, that she doesn’t appreciate. Becky knows something’s not right in her life but she seems to have no idea what it is or how to fix it. She tells the audience (in one of many fourth wall moments in the play) “When a women says she needs new shoes, what she really wants is a new job; when she says she needs a new house, she wants a new husband; when she says she needs a new car, she wants a new life!”

Enter fate in the form of Walter Flood, a ridiculously wealthy and recently widowed billboard magnate who comes to the dealership late one night to buy cars as gifts for his employees – nine of them. Walter mistakes Becky for a fellow widower (and she doesn’t correct him) and he immediately becomes smitten with her. He calls her later that evening to invite her to a dinner party at his sprawling estate on the weekend, and she finds herself accepting against her better judgment (isn’t that always the way?). And that’s when her life begins to change in ways that Twilight Zone fans might find implausible, but work well nonetheless. The story is advanced through some of the most absurd plot devices you could imagine, but the playwright manages to keep us interested enough to suspend our disbelief, primarily through some humorous vignettes.

There is nothing conventional about this play, and that’s one of its great charms. There are no scene changes. All of the action takes place on one stage with overlapping areas where the characters drift into and out of. There’s Becky’s modest home, where people come down fom the second floor via a child’s plastic slide (don’t ask); Walter’s sprawling estate; the car dealership; and a door that alternately serves as an entrance to the office, both homes, and as a place for shadowy figures to hover in the background (both figuratively and literally). There is also a lot of audience participation in this production, as the characters involve the patrons by asking their opinion on subjects, having them help out with household chores, and even come on stage to help Becky get dolled up for her first date with Walter.

Oliva really shines this production, as a lesser actress could have easily made the Becky character shrill and unlikable (especially in the beginning), as we’re not really sure what the deep source of her unhappiness is. Once she begins her relationship with Walter, she begins to transform and mature in an odd way,even though there is nothing in her actions one would normally associate with personal growth. When things begin to fall apart, we still feel for her, which is no easy trick, given that she was the primary architect of her own difficulties, . As husband Joe, Mike Dorval gives a witty and understated performance as the kind of husband that most women allegedly crave. Will McGarrahan does a nice job as a charmingly clueless Walter, and Jaime Carrillo (who I loved in the ‘Motherf*cker with the Hat’) is weirdly hilarious as Steve the widowed vegan/hiker/car salesman. And while the cast is uniformly strong, I also really liked the performance by Kortney Adams as the former socialite who has lost it all and had to start over.

I heartily recommend this production, especially as an alternative to the multitude of Christmas-themed shows out there. For more info, go to: http://www.lyricstage.com/productions/production.cfm?ID=76