'Car' takes us on a merry trip

Who among us in a long relationship has not dreamed of meeting an enormously rich, attractive stranger who finds us captivating and wants to carry us away from all of life's cares? (Note to my wife: I am speaking metaphorically, of course.)

That happens to Rebecca Foster in "Becky's New Car." She gives in to him during the first act, and the consequences unfurl after intermission. They're gently amusing, then farcically silly, then affecting. Playwright Steven Dietz is so skillful a chauffeur that we scarcely notice curves in the road that take us to a logical, if slightly unexpected, destination.

The 2008 play at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte was commissioned by Seattle real estate developer Charles Staadecker as a present for wife Benita, who was a decade older than the 50-ish Becky. By all accounts, their marriage is a happy one. Yet surely even they could understand Becky's temptation, after her guiltless life changes through a miraculous mistake.

She's working late at an auto agency when Walter Flood (Jerry Colbert) drops in and casually buys nine cars for employees. He mistakenly believes she's a widow, and Becky (Catherine Smith) doesn't mention gentle husband Joe (Billy Ensley) or the live-in son (Patrick Hogan) who's a grad student. True to his name, Flood begins to sweep her off her feet.

In Dietz' play, the road to hell is paved not with good intentions but rest stops. At each one, Becky promises us she won't do anything really disastrous: Surely she can accept a party invitation without shame, or view the sunrise chastely from one of Walter's guest cottages without betraying her spouse. But betrayals can also be psychological, as she's sadly reminded.

The play has an unreal tone: Characters address theatergoers and bring a few of us onstage. Yet the writing can be stingingly true, as in the monologue where a once-rich trust-fund wastrel laments her uselessness, now that her money is gone.

Veteran actress Katherine Harrison delivers that speech with brusque intelligence, and it's good to see her back onstage after so long a time. The same is true of Mike Corrigan as a self-pitying salesman and especially Smith, whose ditzy veneer fails to protect a woundable heart.

Sheila Snow Proctor makes her Actor's Theatre debut as director and does a good job with the physical and emotional terrain. Any theater company relies on veterans, in this case Colbert and Ensley. But as "Becky's New Car" proves, we all need change to make us ponder things anew.