Bay Theatre is serving up laughs along with life lessons this holiday season in its offering of the East Coast premiere of Steven Dietz's "Becky's New Car," a play that first appeared in October 2008 after Dietz was commissioned by a Seattle businessman to create a play as a birthday present for his wife.
Now this contemporary escapist fare becomes Bay's holiday gift for us to share as we enter Becky's humdrum life, soon to hum with excitement.
Having written over 30 original plays, Dietz is now the most-produced playwright in America and has never had a play on Broadway. Happily, "Becky's New Car" has found an ideal venue in Bay Theatre's intimate space, which initially becomes almost an extension of Becky's living room.
Here the audience is instantly drawn into her life at home with Joe, her nice-guy roofer husband of 28 years, and their 26-year-old son Chris, a psychology student who lives at home, and into her working life at her auto dealership cubicle. We witness the sudden transformation of Becky's predictable life when eccentric millionaire billboard tycoon Walter arrives at her office to purchase nine cars as gifts for his employees.
Elevating Bay Theatre's established trailblazing reputation, "Becky's New Car" is perhaps even more topical now than when it first appeared three years ago in its portrayal of middle-class against millionaire existence. In our current economy, the disparity between the ultra-rich and the rest of us depicted on stage gains added sting.
Dietz's dialogue is witty and current, and his characters refreshingly unpredictable. Surprise is a constant, from the moment our heroine walks backward onstage to engage the audience directly, seeking help tidying up her living room.
Director James Gallagher uses Bay's intimate space to such great advantage that the audience develops a spontaneous interaction with the characters to enliven every witty line. Actors move seamlessly from home to work to the open road, inviting us along to escape to a new reality. Gallagher's lead actors gracefully break the fourth wall, engaging the audience naturally to create spontaneity. Amid our laughter, we suddenly realize we have gained profound insight, artfully orchestrated by Gallagher.
In creating smooth scene transitions, Gallagher is assisted by skilled lighting designer Eric Lund, who instantly creates a moon-drenched terrace or a mysterious highway. Ken Sheats' set is divided into a cozy living room and simple office to implement rapid scene changes.
Appearing in nearly every scene, Janet Luby inhabits the role of Becky from the moment she enters. Soon, Luby's Becky enlists an audience member to place a pail to catch water audibly dripping from the ceiling. With charming, natural ease, Luby creates a contemporary everywoman interacting with husband, son and auto dealership colleague Steve as well as millionaire Walter.
Luby heads the most skilled cast I can recall assembled on any local stage in recent seasons. Jim Reiter plays the role of Becky's husband — genial, ordinary Joe, wordlessly communicating his protective affection for wife and his confused impatience with his psychobabbling son Chris. In his Bay debut, Reiter conveys easy acceptance of Becky's co-worker Steve and perplexed consternation when initially confronting Walter. Reiter's Joe reveals a great capacity for resolving later difficulties arising from Becky's extramarital fling.
Bay Theatre favorite Nigel Reed, a Helen Hayes Award winner, delivers another solid performance as Steve, comically retelling the tale of his wife's tragic fall from a cliff. Reed's easy rapport with Luby is deliciously alive in every shared scene, taking on added bite as Steve copes with Becky's sudden promotion and senses what may be transpiring in her new hidden life.
Becky's life is given immediate, irresistible charm by Bay associate artist and frequent lead actor Jim Chance, whose warm smile alone instantly beguiles us. Chance's Walter conveys his lingering sadness at the loss of his wife, and his confused delight at discovering his attraction to presumed widow Becky. Chance lends endearing charm to Walter's frequent bumbling, and later invests him with credible wisdom in resolving romantic triangle complications.
Davis Chandler Hasty makes a strong Bay debut as Chris, impressing us with his stamina at performing athletic routines while spouting dialogue without seeming winded. Hasty's Chris conveys his sudden invigoration at discovering love.
Also making a strong Bay debut, Alicia Sweeney holds her own in this illustrious cast by portraying socialite Ginger, who has recently encountered a reversal of fortune and acquires bartending skills to become a survivor who may be destined for happiness with Reed's Steve.
Another local actor debuting at Bay is Elena Crall, who plays Kenni — Walter's pampered daughter, who is involved in a relationship with Chris. On opening night Crall seemed less invested in her portrayal than others in the cast, which perhaps will change in future performances.
Performances continue at 8 p.m Thursday, Friday and Saturday and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. through Jan. 8 at Bay Theatre, 275 West St. in Annapolis. Reservations online at baytheatre.org.