In writing specific plays, contemporary American playwright Steven Deitz has been inspired by Chekhov, Ibsen, P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle. For his 2008 play Becky's New Car, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, he appears to have been inspired by Oprah.
Or is it a coincidence that one character gives away lots of cars, another spouts Dr. Phil-like psychology, and the main character is a woman who talks to the audience and occasionally brings audience members up on stage? Maybe it is, and it can join the cluster of coincidences that drives the action (and no, I'm not beginning a series of car puns).
Here's as much of the story as seems safe to tell: Living in a Seattle-like city, Becky Foster (played by Peggy Metzger) is a vaguely restless middle-aged woman who has been married for 27 years to Joe (Randy Wayne), who runs a roofing business. One night while Becky is catching up on paperwork at her desk job in a car dealership, a wealthy billboard magnate named Walter Flood (Gary Sommers) bursts in to buy nine cars as gifts for his employees, because he can't think of anything else to get them. Articulate and apparently guileless, Walter is a widower who for some unexplained reason thinks Becky is a widow. In their evolving relationship (which includes trips to his island estate), Becky keeps neglecting to tell him otherwise.
Becky and Joe have a 26-year-old son named Chris (Luke Tooker), an unattached psychology student (and budding Dr. Phil) who lives in their basement. Walter has a daughter, Kensington, (Jessi Shieman) who is fed up with her rich boyfriend. The secondary characters are Steve (Steven J. Carter), a car salesman who can't get past his wife's death, and Ginger (Shelley Stewart), a formerly rich neighbor and friend of the Floods.
Almost exactly two years ago Redwood Curtain staged an earlier Dietz play, Yankee Tavern, a drama that depended on extraordinary coincidences. This time the coincidences are played for laughs, and along with the conventions of the happy ending they are so obvious that even my brief description of the characters practically gives away the rest of the plot.
So on one level this is a skillfully fluffy domestic comedy, a middle-class American farce, a blithe foray into contemporary self-absorption, and an arty sitcom that alternates irony with sentimentality. As such, it's an enjoyable romp. Peggy Metzger commands the stage with charm and believability, and Gary Sommers infuses Walter with an appealing innocence. All the actors perform well, with Randy Wayne and Luke Tooker in particular perfectly delivering their characters' deadpan humor.
Relationship traumas and tribulations among older people is a welcome and viable subject for the stage — especially for the usual audience demographic. (The playwright is 55.) For at least some people, troubling issues may arise from Becky's actions, and perhaps this breezy style frees the audience to debate them later. Dietz's smart dialogue has the characters saying intelligent and provocative things, while events (plus sudden audience involvements) happen fast, to surprise and mesmerize. But beyond the distracting razzle-dazzle, I felt a certain emptiness.
For instance, Becky delivers the guiding metaphor of the play in her first monologue. Quoting someone unnamed, she recites something like: When a woman 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. And when she says she wants a new car, she wants a new life.
Becky has just told us she wants a new house and a new car (which doesn't arrive until near the play's end.) But she does not appear to really want anything very much. Maybe her drift into an affair is supposed to be "realistic" or at least comic. But this is too earnest to be bedroom farce, and too flatly and fantastically contrived to be emotionally effective. The script does hint at other metaphors (the car as vehicle for life's journey, etc.) that might be realized onstage but aren't. At least, not in the preview performance I saw.
The actors get you to like these gently and helplessly self-absorbed people. But as characters, none seem to have a truly defining moment onstage. (Several tell us what they decided offstage.) Except for flashes of danger in Randy Wayne's eyes as the regular Joe, there's little beyond cascades of contrivances on the busy surface. Some may find this liberating. To me it felt like emotional cheating.
Becky's New Car is directed by Gail Holbrook, with lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Jenneveve Hood and sound by Kristin Mack. It continues weekends through Sept. 28.
On Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m., North Coast Rep opens the classic 1930s comedy You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Mack Owen, the large cast features David Simms, Evan Needham, Ken Klima, Lora Canzoneri and Molly Harvis. This opening night performance benefits cast and crew. The production continues Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 10, with Sunday matinees on Sept. 29 and Oct. 6. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.