Will McGarrahan, Celeste Oliva, Mike Dorval in "Becky's New Car'' at Boston's Lyric Theatre.
Will McGarrahan, Celeste Oliva, and Mike Dorval in Becky's New Car at Boston's Lyric Theatre.
(© Mark S. Howard)

Robert Frost understood that when two roads diverge, you have to pick one. That truism gets fudged a bit by the frazzled, amiable heroine of Becky's New Car, the 2008 Steven Dietz vehicle parked at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Becky Foster is a relatively happy, middle-aged wife and mother (of a 26-year-old still living at home), overworked at the automobile dealership where she answers the phone several hundred times a day: "Thank you for calling Bill Buckley Lexus-Saturn-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Home of the Fifty-Thousand-Mile Smile." Then one night when she's in the salesroom late, a befuddled, widowed millionaire walks in, looking to buy some cars as gifts for his employees. When Becky recommends an all-wheel-drive sports coupe, remarking that her husband always wanted one, billboard magnate Walter Flood assumes that she too is bereaved. Somehow, she fails to adequately correct him. And before you know it, she's all dolled up and living parallel lives separated by a three-hour drive and a wide socioeconomic chasm.

Dietz is the one who has Becky breach the fourth wall, welcoming us to her home, her office, and her story, pulling a few awkward audience members up on stage to share a Sprite or shove a bucket under a roof leak. Though I'm not a fan of this theatrical gimmick, Celeste Oliva's ditzy, welcoming Becky handles it with such scattered aplomb that I lived through it. And director Larry Coen has conspired with scenic designer Shelley Barish to present Dietz's whimsical comedy about longtime marriage and life's surprises as if it were a board game, complete with chute and ladder. Characters enter down a slide or through a self-operating mystery door, then gamely bounce along a checkered path among the play's four locations: Becky's home, her work, her car, and the millionaire's palatial waterfront spread.

None of this is as nauseatingly cute as it sounds, in part because Becky is such a relatable character and Oliva such a feisty comic persona but also because Becky's New Car is that rare thing: a cartoon that is actually about something. The sharp ensemble makes this clear from the get-go, collectively announcing the play's title, author, settings, and epigraph, a quote from Bernard Malamud to the effect that "We have two lives — the one we learn with, and the life we live after that." Becky, pulling the audience into her vehicle like several hundred hitchhikers, takes us on a careering joyride through the last leg of her learner life.

Of course, we see the upcoming collision before she does, and as more and more of Becky's and Walter's family and friends become inappropriately involved, it's fun to await the crash. Also enjoying the mayhem, if not his wife's betrayal, is Becky's solid roofer husband, Joe, who toward the end of the play commandeers the narrative. Mike Dorval plays the easygoing Joe with warmth and firmness — both a contrast to Will McGarrahan's Walter, who is somehow clueless and suave at once. Alex Marz is both supercilious and goofy as Becky and Joe's grad-student son, Chris, who, when not hibernating in his man cave upstairs, supplies apt psychological terms for the emotional goings-on around him. Samantha Richert is smug yet sweet as Walter's coddled daughter, who's looking for something "odd" but "real" and finds it in Chris. Jaime Carrillo personifies social ineptitude as Becky's also-widowed workplace colleague, Steve. And Kortney Adams morphs from indolent to pert as a broke socialite looking for a new life. We're all looking for a new life, the play suggests, but if one turns up and we try it on, the old one will never fit the same.