Within minutes of meeting Becky (Storm Kennedy), the modern-day Madame Bovary at the center of Steven Dietz’s comedy Becky’s New Car, this frenetic, chatty woman has addressed the congregated, welcomed us into her cluttered living room and even enlisted an unsuspecting audience member in helping her stop a drip in the ceiling. It’s always a risky proposition breaking down that proverbial fourth wall in theater, and you’d be forgiven for wondering just how cute and coy playwright Steven Dietz intends to be here: Is Becky’s intrusive engagement simply neurotic bargaining, a co-dependent shuffle meant to disguise a cloying lack of purpose? Is the audience being disarmed before we are hogwashed?
The answer is yes, and then no. Yes, because Becky — a secretary at a car dealership who betrays Joe, her husband (Patrick Dizney), by falling under the melancholic romantic spell of über-rich widower Walter (Bary Shaw) — is desperately and somewhat blindly seeking those loopholes in logic that justify infidelity. By pulling us in, we become complicit in her sexual gambit. And, conversely and emphatically, the answer is no as to whether this ruse of audience participation is merely clever; Dietz brilliantly exploits the ruse, bringing a startling level of intelligence, wit and emotional insight into a messy situation that many lesser artists might treat with a dull hammer of moral indignation.
Superbly directed for Oregon Contemporary Theatre by Brian Haimbach, Becky’s New Car is, in the final reckoning, a swift and subtle investigation of bourgeois ennui and the wages of domestic commitment. Becky, a good woman who obviously loves her husband, nonetheless feels unfulfilled, strangled by financial concerns and wondering if her life has become little more than her roles of worker, wife and mother to her loafing egghead of a son Chris (John Jeffrey). When Walter, a charmingly dunderheaded millionaire, walks into her dealership late one night looking to buy a fleet of cars, Becky, snowed over by this man’s narcissistic grief, falls almost imperceptibly into a grand plan of deception. Her affair just seems to happen, as though she is more a victim of desire than its agent. For Becky, if not for everyone, infidelity isn’t about sex but adventure; beware a life lacking thrills.
What’s most impressive about the play is that it works on several levels at once, thanks in large part to an excellent cast of actors capable of evoking compassion and warmth where neither typically exist. Becky’s New Car is at once a classic romantic comedy, an oddball domestic drama and a sharp but humane depiction of how life, seemingly by accident, gets tangled up in deceit and need, often as the prologue to a moment of grace and forgiveness. –— Rick Levin
Becky’s New Car plays through Oct. 4 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; $15-$30.