The new Steven Dietz play "Becky's New Car" plays at Seattle's ACT Theatre Oct. 17-Nov. 16.
Steven Dietz is the prolific author of more than two dozen plays, and his work has been presented at major theaters around the U.S. But “Becky’s New Car,” in previews at ACT Theatre, is the only play he’s created as a birthday present from a husband to his wife.
The wife Dietz wrote it for is not his own (fellow playwright Allison Gregory) but another man’s spouse.
How’s that? Let Dietz, a part-time Seattle resident with long ties to this area’s theater community, explain.
“‘Becky’s New Car’ was commissioned in a program ACT started recently, where anybody can underwrite a new play as a gift to someone,” said Dietz, by phone from Austin, Texas, where spends the academic year teaching writing at University of Texas.
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Seattle commercial realtor Charles Staadecker commissioned “Becky’s New Car” for his wife Benita, an ACT trustee. And that led to the forging of ACT’s New Works for the American Stage, which grants $5,000 to $8,000 per year over a three-year period to a writer toiling on a new script ACT might produce later. (The company won’t specify the exact amount of Dietz’s commission.)
“I wanted to make this gift to Benita something unusual and memorable, something that would be a real legacy,” says Staadecker. And yes, his theater-loving wife was indeed pleased by the gesture.
“On Betina’s birthday,” notes Dietz, “I sent her the play’s first scene.”
The practice of arts patrons funding new works in tribute to friends or lovers was commonplace in, say, Shakespeare’s day, and Mozart’s.
It happens far less frequently now, but Dietz says he’s been happy to oblige with “Becky’s New Car,” a satirical comedy that sounds like a cross between the Demi Moore film “Indecent Proposal” and the Craig Lucas farce “Reckless.”
“My play is about a regular middle-class woman, Becky, who works in an auto dealership and her husband is a roofer,” Dietz elaborated. “She meets this slightly eccentric, somewhat bumbling millionaire, and through a bunch of misunderstandings, he offers her a chance to live a kind of parallel existence.”
The idea of having a secret double life fascinated Dietz.
“I think we all love those great little stories you find in the corner of the newspaper — you know, ‘after his death, Florida man is revealed to have three different families.’ That felt like the stuff of comedy to me.”
The settings and subjects of Dietz plays have been all over the map — from 19th-century France (in “Inventing van Gogh”) to 1990s Seattle (“Lonely Planet”) and the isle of Grenada during the Reagan Era (“Halcyon Days”). But he often ponders secrets, lies and identity, and employs strokes of sardonic humor.
As for “Becky’s New Car,” Dietz insists his benefactors the Staadeckers “put no restrictions on me in terms of the writing. But they have become very enmeshed in the production, coming to rehearsals and watching over the project. And really, I’ve just loved having them around.”
Those who did exert direct impact on the dialogue and characters are the veteran Seattle actors appearing in ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie’s debut staging of the piece — including Michael Winters, Suzanne Bouchard, Charles Leggett and R. Hamilton Wright. (A more recent local transplant, Kimberly King, plays the title role of Becky.)
“Kurt really challenged me to write a good, tight, seven-character ensemble comedy for some terrific actors,” according to Deitz. “That’s one of the scariest things an artistic director can ask of you. How could I pass up the challenge?”
Though he wrote it over the past two years, “Becky’s New Car” may gain additional resonance from its examination of class, wealth and cultural values during a period of economic meltdown.
“If we were in a flush time, like the 1990s, this would probably just be considered a midlife crisis play,” asserted Dietz. “But right now people’s individual crises are dovetailing with larger crises in our society. That amplifies everything.”
He considers this a good time for self-examination — and for comedy. “We’re in a culture of desperation, and if I can channel that into a comic premise, which is funny but still investigates serious things, that would be a great goal. Humor is truth.”
In 2006, a tenure-track teaching post at University of Texas sent Dietz, Gregory and their two young children to Austin. But the family still spends summers here in their Wallingford house, and thinks of Seattle as home base.
This city has been good to Colorado native Dietz. “Becky’s New Car” will be his ninth play aired by ACT. His scripts have been seen here, too, at numerous other theaters, including Seattle Children’s Theatre (“Still Life with Iris”) and Seattle Repertory Theatre (“Over the Moon”), where he has also directed plays by fellow writers such as Kevin Kling.
Currently Dietz has several projects percolating in several cities. “It’s kind of strange, but I’m having three plays premiering this season,” he reported.
“In addition to ‘Becky’s New Car’ there’s ‘Shooting Star,’ a romantic comedy I’m directing at the Austin’s Zach Theatre and there’s a conspiracy thriller called ‘Yankee Tavern’ that will premiere next year at Florida Stage. Someone called this my car, star and bar year.”
But there is no place like home, Dietz reflected. “It’s a terrific homecoming for me to premiere something at ACT. It means a lot to me. And it never feels so right as when I’m back in Seattle, working with these actors.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org