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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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Mr & Mrs Fitch – Review

Mr. & Mrs. Fitch at the Second Stage Theatre is a rollicking good time and should be treated as such. John Lithgow and Jenifer Ehle, in the title roles are directed by Scott Ellis to absolute symphonic perfection. They are utterly delicious to watch on an astounding set by Allen Moyer. This new play by Douglas Carter Beane (Little Doug Laughed) is going to be an audience favorite despite its deep flaws. The dialogue is witty and fast paced and at times quite clever. No critique, mine or others changes that fact. But oh, the flaws.

Mr. & Mrs. Fitch live in a 2,000 square foot duplex loft in a desirable section of Manhattan. Presumably they do so on Mr. Fitch’s salary as a gossip columnist. The play takes place today; twitter, blogging and prominent MacBooks confirm this fact. Yet, the costumes are out of a Noel Coward play. They are gorgeous, but as incongruent as the scathing epitaphs Mr. Fitch hurls at Mrs. Fitch, seemingly out of the blue. This appears to be an homage to Albee’s Virginia Woolf, but they are just disturbing coming from the mouth of an otherwise pleasing fellow. This fellow, we are told, prefers men, yet Mrs. Fitch makes scathing witticisms about bisexuals (bi now, gay later) and not to offend her husband. Mr. Fitch’s boss, presumably a newspaper editor, calls him in the middle of the night and leaves the most outrageous message on his answering machine. It is difficult to believe that someone in the news business would be so obtuse as to leave a permanent record of berating homosexual slurs slung at an employee.

Mr. Fitch has a novel within him and disdain for his day job. Mr. & Mrs. Fitch go to parties with people they hate and scurry back home to type out a column in five minutes. The plot, as it were, then centers around the fact that they create a celebrity, a la A Face in the Crowd. Why they do this and what they hope to gain from it, is not entirely clear, but it makes for interesting comments.

We discover that Mrs. Fitch, the more fast paced witty raconteur, is from New Jersey and attended public school. Apparently, this is code for “wrong side of the tracks.” There are moments when this word smith is turned into Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. She attributes fine chocolates, watches and neutrality to the Swedes, and makes obvious errors about Edgar Lee Masters. What’s even more appalling, is the scene (written for laughs) in which she uses the Joy of Cooking to figure out how to crack an egg, and must find the printed instructions for the stove? Who IS this woman? She was raised in New Jersey, clearly not with a silver spoon, does not work, has no household help (we know this because there is clutter in the house) but can not crack an egg? Weren’t we subjected to this display in Adam’s Rib? The incongruity spills into the dialogue too as Mr. Beane seems uncomfortable trusting the audience. He is most comfortable with witty
repartee or turns of phrase, and most uncomfortable putting voice to intellectualism. It is not clear whether he simply does not have a grasp on the lofty content, or a grasp on how to deliver it (my money is on the former.) There are clumsy redundant explanatory lines such as “He was with his excruciatingly young Nabokovian lover” that are cringe inducing. There is a rather desperate Sarah Palin joke as well (why not stamp an expiration date on the play?)

Both acts are interrupted by travel monologues, first she, then he. They move nothing in the story, and bring the real strength of the play (their tennis match of words) to a screeching halt. The set, though ravishing and a decorator’s dream of balance and color, left a few questions in my mind. Would the Fitches who have nothing but disdain for the common, really have Wally Lamb books? Would there be a copy of the Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the table? I found the fact that I had the same books and ideas as the Fitches mildly disconcerting. Mr. Beane should have tried harder to align the characters he was creating with what he knew to be true.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Theatre

 

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