March 21 2012 12:00 AM

Riverwalk Theatre revs up a gem with 'New Car'


Don´t dismiss the Riverwalk Theatre production “Becky´s New Car” on account of its name. Like describing a classic Cadillac as “a roomy sedan,” the play´s title provides a vague and inadequate description of this consistently funny, contemporary comedy.

Under the direction of Addiann Hinds, the silly and often dark tone of the script by Steven Dietz takes on a genuine Midwestern feel that rings true with all ages and genders. 

The play derives its name from one of the opening lines of dialogue: "When women say they want a new car, they want a new life," delivered by the “middle-aged” protagonist Becky — full name Rebecca Foster (Gini Larson).

Becky directly recalls the story of her memorable transition from one life as an unappreciated wife, mother and office secretary to her new life as a courted lover of a wealthy widower. 

Larson is the engine of this show, imbuing the bourgeois Becky with modest charm and charisma. It takes effort to appear effortless, and Larson is a master of making her characters so natural they could be real. You empathize with Becky patiently listening to her co-worker, Steve (Mike Sobocinski), pine on and on about his recently deceased wife because Larson´s forced smile mirrors your own.

The circumstances that befall Becky next may be slightly absurd, but Larson makes Becky´s inner struggle relatable to anyone who has had to make difficult choices.

As Becky´s blue-collar husband Joe, Wayne Tagg nearly matches Larson´s grounded delivery with his own understated “nice guy” grace. Trusting but hardly naïve, Joe provides an essential and likely familiar layer of routine as the other half of Becky´s functioning yet passionless marriage.

Their 26-year-old son Chris (Joseph Mull) contributes the heady, humorous insight courtesy of his in-progress grad-school degree in psychology. Though Mull´s lines feel slightly forced, he just looks the part of an aspiring post-modern existentialist with hippie length hair and full beard for pensive stroking.

Jeff Boerger subtly invokes compassion for his character Walter Flood, the benevolent billboard tycoon who propositions Becky on the assumption that her husband is already dead. With puppy dog eyes and an easy smile, Boerger conveys Flood’s reliance on the women around him and the regret of not appreciating them until they’re gone.

Susan Carpenedo-Zupan and Jane Zussman fill in the Flood entourage with lively spirit. Carpendo-Zupan marks her Riverwalk debut with organic zest as Walter’s daughter Kensington who strives to break free from her Ivy League cage while Zussman feels perfectly cast as Walter’s long-time high society friend and potential suitor Ginger. 

The play’s strongest featured performance comes from Sobocinski who in one scene turns the most disturbing fantasy of murdering a puppy in front of a small child into a hilarious expression of blatant honesty. 

Hinds’ three layer set including Becky’s office desk, Becky’s living room, and Walter’s mansion balcony allows Hinds to seamlessly move her actors from location to location as if traveling through a theatrical wormhole. As Becky speaks to the audience, light changes cue her departure from one space to the next. 

Becky eventually acquires a new car but Dietz’s story really examines the societal expectations of Becky as well as the fairness of the consequences. Still, Becky’s tale told without slapstick or melodrama feels refreshingly insightful. It’s a road rarely taken by similar plays, and it’s a beautiful ride.

´Becky’s New Car´

Through March 25

Riverwalk Theatre

228 Museum Drive, Lansing

7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays;

2 p.m. Sundays

$14; $12 for seniors, military and students

(517) 482-5700