Women Drivers :: Dietz and Coen on ’Becky’s New Car’
A handsome, very rich man walks into the car dealership where you work and wants to buy several new, fully-loaded cars, one for each of his employees. Here's the weirder thing: He also thinks, for some strange reason, that your husband is dead, and you're still wearing your wedding ring because you can't get over his passing.
You try, unsuccessfully, to tell the man that your husband is still alive, but he doesn't understand, and you don't push the issue. The next time you talk to him he asks you to dinner.
Do you go?
This is the situation in which the title character in the thought provoking comedy "Becky's New Car" finds herself. The Lyric Stage Company is giving this new play by Steven Dietz its Boston area premiere (through December 22).
"I'm interested in seeing how the audience will respond to a central character that's adulterous," director Larry Coen said to me during the final rehearsals of the show.
I'm somewhat taken aback. If the majority of world literature features love and marriage as a major themes, then a good deal of literature must deal with adultery. Are Boston audiences that prudish?
He finishes his sentence, "...and female. As a theatrical figure, an adulterous woman is still relatively unexamined."
"Oh come on, you meant there's a double standard?" I'm personally for equal rights in adultery, but I'm probably not the best barometer for audience standards, as I sought out "Lady Chatterley's Lover" in middle school and one of my favorite movies is "Unfaithful", because Diane Lane's acting really makes me empathize with her in that role.
"We don't see a lot of adulterous wives in drama," stated Coen. "Adulterous husbands, absolutely. They're the subject of comedies and histories and farces. The adulterous husband as a device has a thousand different uses. But adulterous women are a loaded, unexamined issue."
That being said, another show playing the area features an adulterous female lead. In "Camelot" (at New Rep through Dec. 22), Guinevere strays from her marriage after a long, painful courtship, and she pays for it by being sentenced to death, losing both men, and eventually becoming a nun.
Still, the legend of King Arthur happened a long time ago. Do we still have a problem letting women drive?
Interpreting the Script
The work of the playwright Steven Dietz is popular across the country, and Boston is no exception. Within the last six months, five different companies in the area have produced his plays, one apiece. Still, for Dietz, a play is never completely finished.
"I’m always looking to make [a play] better because there’s no such thing as being passive as a playwright," Dietz said to me when I interviewed him a couple of months ago. "You’re either looking to defend what you have and say, ’No more changes,’ or you’re looking to change what you have. There’s no middle ground."
"My default is to keep leaning on the play and try to improve it, because I’m suspicious of myself when I think I’m done. I try to be the last one done with my plays. So if everyone who worked on a production says, ’I think it’s done,’ I’ll go to my hotel room that night and look for things to cut."
Regardless of how much he perfects a play, Dietz realizes that every production will be different. He feels that a play "should look like" the company producing it.
"They all picked the play for different reasons, so it would make sense to me they would present the play in different ways," he said. "I want each production to be as different as they need and want to be."
"This play could be done realistically," said Coen, but he and the designers decided that this would be a mistake, because the play is about a car and there was no way to bring a car onstage. They came up with a different idea.
"Our image for the play is a board game," Coen explained.
"Okay," I said, confused.
"So we’ve kind of created a theatrical space that’s a shattered version of a board game," he went on. "[Because] every time Becky is hesitating to pursue her new opportunities, enabling things happen. Like, she gets a bonus, and she gets three-weeks [of] vacation that allows her to be with her lover. Within the [real] world, where’s the logic of that? There’s no fairy godmother. And so we decided board game logic answered that question."
"In Monopoly, you turn over a card and get $200; otherwise [the] events [that happen in the play] are sort of improbable. So we want to create a world where they’re probable."
Uncertain of how putting this story on a game board will assist me suspending my disbelief, I simply say, "Alright," but I think Coen can hear the hesitation in my voice.
"It’s a wonderful space to look at. The set is glorious," he assures me.
"Is this theme overt," I ask, "or is it, you know, just subtle?"
"It’s subtle," he assures me. "Instead of furniture we have game pieces that fit together and build things. We have a ladder on stage. We have a slide..." Coen explains to me that the author wanted the characters to move into different playing spaces smoothly, without transitions and big set changes. "This all felt like a fun, logical, interesting way to make that happen."
Dietz is used to seeing his plays produced in vastly different ways. The playwright told me that within the space of two months he saw one of his plays produced by five different companies, and each new cast’s interpretation informed him about the play.
"One reason I’m still writing plays after all this time is that I’ve been smart enough to steal great moments and great ideas from people and included them in my play," he said. "But the trick is to give the scripts as strong a blueprint as you can and then let [the actors] do their work."
The director seems happy with the blueprint he’s been given. "I’ve had some thinking about how I choose my projects," Coen told me. "And I can no longer work with people who have nothing to say."
"’Becky’s New Car’ is a play I’m proud of," said Dietz. "I spent the first - God, I don’t know - two decades of my playwriting career looking for stories outside of myself: Political stories, or factual stories, or docudramas, or adaptations. Now I feel like I’m looking for stories inside myself: Friendships, a group of friends going through pressures in their marriage, or someone taking a different road in their life. Those kinds of things. There’s a personal aspect now in how the stories are being generated that I can’t theorize about because it’s brand new, but I notice it happening."
"None of [my plays] are my story. I mean, none of them are the story of my life... but I would say many of my plays are highly, highly personal."
"So why are you the best person to direct this play, rather than a woman?" I asked Coen, "Isn’t it a woman’s story?"
"There’s a clear possibility that a woman would bring more to the table than I would. I don’t know that... I’m a middle class white guy. When it comes down to diversity of experience I would never argue against somebody else, but at the same time, I have to say, this is my identity. This is my background, and I refuse to be shamed by it. It’s about pride and acceptance of yourself. I don’t want to think that my life is inevitably second class. I can’t devalue myself that way."
"Let me rephrase that," I said. "What are you, Larry, bringing to this play that will make it worthwhile for audiences?"
"I have a really good, strong sense of what is interesting on the stage. My number one task is to make certain that what is on that stage is interesting and compelling to watch."
During the auditions, Coen said, actors interpreted the material with too much gravitas. "People just kind of played this vague sadness. It bored me. I’m, like, ’Let’s not make this a demonstration of whether you can act or not. Let’s make this a demonstration of whether you can initiate some bold ideas.’"
Coen said he uses his experience as an actor to keep his cast from being self-indulgent. "They’re all in love with playing sad moments. You can’t do that. There’s a scene we did a run-through of last night, and I said to the actors, I said, ’This scene is killing us. You’re all playing the sadness. And you’re all, like, in a pity party with yourselves. And the momentum in our story is going away."
"Do they think the play is more serious than you do?" I inquired.
"Oh, it’s fun [to play the sadness.] I know what they’re doing, and they know I know. It’s what I call ’demonstrating your tears.’ You’ve made yourself cry onstage and then you lift your eyes so that the light catches them. Then everyone in that house can say, ’Ooo those are real tears.’"
"I often say to a director you’ve got to watch me or I’ll Minnelli it (Liza, not Vincente.) As an actor, I love to ham it up on stage. Is it fun for me? Yes. Is it fun for the audience? No."
"Becky’s New Car"
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston
140 Clarendon St. , 617-585-5678.
Writers: Steven Dietz
Director: Larry Coen
Through Dec. 22