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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 Uncategorized

 

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Ruined – Review

This weekend I went, somewhat begrudgingly, to see Ruined at The Manhattan Theatre Club.  I knew nothing about the play except that it had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn Nottage.  That was enough to get me in the door.  Once in the theatre (at City Center) I saw the gigantic wall poster of the play’s synopsis.  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted those key cringe inducing Eve Ensler nouns and shuddered.  I felt lightheaded at the very thought of two and a half hours of “women as victims” narrative.  Well, in for a penny in for a pound as they say.  I had my ticket and a pocketful of gourmet jelly beans, so into the theatre with me.  My equilibrium began to return the moment I stepped inside.  The stage is enormous and the house is small; and excellent combination.  The stage was set dramatically and expansively, every inch was performance space.  I took my comfortable sixth row seat and spun my head like an owl.  The house was filled with actual theatergoers.  The interracial crowd was tourist-free; another good sign, nary an M&Ms shopping bag in sight.  Sitting in the row directly in front of me was Philip Seymour Hoffman (or Phil as his friends call him) and Laila Robbins (not together;) another very good sign.  A few rows ahead of me, Lynn Whitfield sat down.  Things were looking up.  The last time I had been at a performance with such a healthy percentage of actor to commoner ration was August Osage County.
Never underestimate the veracity of good omens.  This play is enormous.  Yes, it is a play set in a war torn far off locale, and yes there are unspeakable horrors brought upon women, men and children.  But there is nothing treacly or sentimental or preachy about Ruined.  It is a beautiful story about the human spirit, that brought me to tears (twice) not out of pity for the characters, but out of admiration for their strength.  There are wonderful moments of laughter, and there is music, gorgeous, poetic music.  The play is set in a taverna/brothel, and the music is live and an integral part of the play.  Kate Whoriskey directs this play at a perfect pace.  There is never one moment of downtime or distraction, I was riveted to every moment and motion on stage  The play is mostly led by female characters who were beautifully developed.  The male lead; Russel G. Jones, broke my heart.  He is Herbie to Saidah Arrika Ekulona’s aptly named Mama.  It does not belittle Ruined to draw this Gypsy comparison.  Both Mama’s live off the “talents” of their girls and both
have a traveling salesman wooing them.  Mr Jones’ Christian, like Herbie, is driven by decency, and in Ruined this male character trait is most spectacular.   Ms. Ekulona is a dynamic actress and finds every nuance of Mama, I could not get enough of her.  Condola Rashad (yes, Mrs. Huxtable’s daughter) was a delightful surprise.  She does a very fine job in the difficult and demanding role of Sophie.  It is when she sings that she really comes to life.  A capable singer, she is heartbreaking singing the songs of Lynn Nottage.  Enough can not said about the play itself.  My only concern about it is that now that it has won the Pulitzer, community theatres across America will tackle it.  Human Rights organization will build fundraisers around it.  But without the gorgeous direction of Ms. Whoriskey, the play could be cheapened. Produced on the expansive stage of the MTC and staged in such a realistic manner, there is a degree of intimacy that is a key component to the experience.  This play should not be “watched” it should be experienced.  In the wrong hands it quite possibly could deteriorate into a Congo Monologue.  Please see it now while it is as it should be.  The play and the performances will stay with you and you’ll feel better for having seen it.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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