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How I Learned To Drive – Review

It is difficult to write of something which everybody feels they know everything about.  How do you take a story about pedophilia and make it nuanced, new and compelling?  Paula Vogel did it with How I Learned To Drive, earning a Pultizer Prize (1998) for her effort.  The writing is so exquisite, it’s difficult to imagine a production faltering.  Yet, the first major revival of any play of importance stirs apprehension.  Could anyone match David Morse’s unique blend of innocent man child and demonic predator?  His presence is so distinct, that having never seen the (1997) original, I still could visualize him on the stage.  (Morse, is only rivaled in innocuous/sinister duality, by a young Richard Masur.)

However there is absolutely nothing to fear with this revival (except for the evils that lurk inside families) it is remarkable.  Directed by Kate Whoriskey (Ruined) every layer of human struggle and motivation is gently exposed.  Whoriskey is no stranger to coaxing out the beauty behind the ugliness.  While there is much humor in this play, it is never at anyone’s expense.  The characters are realistically complex without donning a sandwich board which says so. There is a delicacy and a subtlety often found in real life but rarely in its portrayal.

The story, told in flashback and with a wonderful Greek chorus, is that of an uncle’s molestation of his niece (Li’l Bit) over the course of years.  The metaphor, and actuality of driving lessons works as an effective device in moving the story.  Using flashbacks allows us to develop feelings for the characters before we have to witness the actual horror of what they’ve done.  Towards the very end of the play, we discover how this could have happened, and there are no surprises.  But as is often the case with victimization, we need to know, and to hear it from the characters themselves.

Norbet Leo Butz (Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is simply remarkable as Uncle Peck.  He is vulnerable, ingratiating, and deeply troubled.  We never see him interacting with adults, but suspect that he can’t.  His niece (Elizabeth Reaser) is saddled with early puberty, an unorthodox household and the 1960s.  Reaser is new to the stage and it showed when she first appeared all alone on the stage (she needs a little work on her enunciation and projection.)  She quickly finds her groove however, and is quite convincing at every age (27,18,17,13,11.)

The Greek chorus adds so much to this play that could feel quite insular.  Jennifer Regan, Kevin Cahoon, and Marnie Schulenburg, take on the role of family members, an actual chorus, and a waiter.  Ms. Regan is mesmerizing.  No doubt she tires of being compared to a young Carol Burnett, but I can think of no higher compliment.

The set (Derek McLane) and setting (Second Stage Theatre) are simply spot on.  There is a ’57 Ford upstage, some street lights, and a few rolling pieces of furniture on stage.  The lighting design (Peter Kaczorowski) conjures time and place.  The house size and design are perfect for reinforcing the intimacy and insulation.

This is a play, and production which linger, and should.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Man and Boy – Review

The Rondabout Theatre Company has mounted a revival of Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy.  For those with a pressing engagement or abbreviated attention span, I will cut to the chase: it is phenomenal.

Frank Langella (‘nough said?) stars in this drama set in Greenwich Village in 1934.  Directed by Maria Aiken, the fluid and balanced action unfolds in real time one October evening.  Man and Boy, written in 1961, feels terribly modern both in its storyline and style.  Langella’s character, Gregor Antonescu is an international financier, credited with resuscitating the European markets after World War I.  He is debonair, larger than life, steely, and by his own admission, without conscious.  Things have come to a bit of a nasty head for G.A., as he is known to his trusty assistant Sven Johnson (Michael Siberry) who bears a second cousin resemblance to Max in Sunset Boulevard.  Sven seeks out the Greenwich Village apartment of G.A.’s estranged son Basil (Adam Driver) for a clandestine business meeting.  Basil has denounced his lineage and lives as a piano playing socialist in a dreary basement apartment (designed by Derek McLane.)  Underneath the thin layer of his disguise is Basil’s adulation of dear old dad.

Not surprisingly G.A.’s impulse upon seeing his son for the first time in five years, is to offer the young man to his closeted business adversary.  Prostituting one’s young, does not earn any parenting awards, but it feels completely in character for G.A.  There is nothing surprising about the turn in the story, yet it must be said that the matinee audience (of a certain age and with just a hint of bridge and tunnel A.O.C.) giggled nervously with the implications.  This storyline is not meant to be funny, and in 1934 Greenwich Village socialist circles, homosexual activity would not be unknown.  I suspect a different audience would have a different response.

The cast is perfectly balanced out by Basil’s girlfriend Carol (Virginia Kull,) the business nemesis Mark (Zach Grenier) his accountant Beeston (Brian Hutchinson) and  G.A.’s second wife the (purchased title of) Countess (Francesca Faridany.)  The relationships and interactions between these characters is completely thought out and believable.  Most of us won’t commandeer a basement apartment in an attempt to rescue our international financial empire, but we can relate and understand the words and actions of all of these characters.  That is the mark of truth in writing.

This production has an overall British feel to it, no accident considering the lineage of some of the creative team.  There is a simple intelligence to the production that this play richly deserves.  There are plays that take (well rewarded) effort on the part of the audience.  I love Martin McDonagh, but you better not blink for 2 hours or you will be lost.  Additionally, plays steeped in symbolism can be a delicious intellectual exercise.  But there is something to say for clean, emotionally true drama.  And when it’s exquisitely executed, it is a must see.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2011 in Theatre

 

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