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Monday, January 9, 2012

'Becky's New Car' gets stuck in comedic overdrive

GOING MY WAY? Wendy Melkonian and Allan Edwards
Wendy Melkonian’s such an innately, irresistibly likable actress, it takes a long time in Becky’s New Car for the audience to realize that she’s not playing a likable character in the Georgia Ensemble Theatre comedy. As Becky Foster, Melkonian literally chats up the spectators from the very beginning, greeting the spectators as old friends who just dropped by, asking the people in the front row to help with some quick living room clean-up.

Becky ingratiatingly walks us through her life, which includes her husband, Joe (Randy Cohlmia), an affectionate roofer who takes her a little for granted; her son Chris (Jacob York), perpetual master’s student living at home in his mid-20s; and her job at a Lexus/Saturn/Mitsubishi dealership. Becky’s New Car frequently breaks the fourth wall, and not only does Melkonian directly address the audience, at times she’ll self-consciously step between the home and office sides of the set, like a kind of teleportation.

While doing paperwork at the office late one night, Becky receives a visit from Walter Flood (Allan Edwards), a friendly, eccentric billboard mogul who wants to give cars to his employees but feels paralyzed with indecision. Walter reveals that his wife passed away and a misunderstanding lets him assume that Becky’s husband is also deceased. Becky never corrects him and begins spending time with the emotionally vulnerable, filthy rich gentleman. Georgia Ensemble Theatre brings a light, pleasing touch to Becky’s New Car without really sorting out its darker implications.

Walter emerges as a goofy millionaire worthy of P.G. Wodehouse or a 1930s screwball comedy, and Becky finds herself awkwardly hobnobbing with the glitterati at his lake house. Playwright Steven Dietz creates a kind of mashup of old-fashioned humor genres with the kind of contemporary comedy that uses post-modern effects to explore middle-class ennui. Wacky coincidences and misunderstandings alternate with images of grief, particularly given the play’s many lives rent by death, betrayal or, in the case of Lala Cochran’s aristocrat, financial collapse.

Edwards gives a perfectly charming performance, but he’s such an avuncular figure that it’s hard to detect any romantic chemistry between him and Melkonian. Similarly, Melkonian drifts into emotionally compromised positions with such good cheer, we can only wonder why she’s so disaffected with her home life that she’s considers throwing it all away. Cohlmia, a local actor back in the ATL after eight years in L.A., makes Joe a salt-of-the-earth mensch who’s the good guy in this scenario.

A show like Shirley Valentine effectively sets up one middle-aged woman’s dissatisfaction. In Becky’s New Car, director Shannon Eubanks snappily conveys what Becky does, but glosses over why she’s doing it.

Early in the play Becky remarks, “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.” But what’s so bad about Wendy’s husband and life? Does she even deserve love or forgiveness, given the selfishness of her decisions? Nimble but increasingly unsatisfying, Becky’s New Car feels too funny for its own good.

Becky’s New Car
. Through Jan. 22. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St. 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2:30 p.m., Sun. $20-36. 770-641-1260.

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