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How I Learned to Drive

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson." Those are indeed prophetic words, as spoken by Elizabeth Reaser at the beginning of Kate Whoriskey's new production of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive at Second Stage. Playing Li'l Bit, the conflicted young woman whose ready-to-spill secret is as big as her ample chest, Reaser is properly setting you up for an evening that's more educational than emotionally enlightening, and more intellectually stimulating than psychologically devastating. This is not to suggest, however, that all time spent in a classroom—or even a theater doing double duty as one—is necessarily worthless.

Whoriskey delivers with her interpretation a staunchly detached view of Li'l Bit's upbringing, starting at age 11 in the early 1960s and ending some two decades later. From the opener, where the adult Li'l Bit matter-of-factly whisks us into a key moment of her past, a driving lesson with her attentive Uncle Peck (Norbert Leo Butz), it's clear that this will not be a sentimental portrait, but rather a bracing examination of the ways memory never loosens its grip on us. This is reinforced by Derek McLane's set, which highlights the swirling collection of influences within the endless country road of Li'l Bit's mind: streetlights melt off into a skewed-perspective horizon, and a shadowy, almost imposing, Cadillac holds court upstage. (The reserved lighting is by Peter Kaczorowski.)

It doesn't take long to discover why the likes of automobiles and highways are so central in the mind of this growing-up Maryland woman, though Vogel wisely withholds their full significance until the final scene. What you get until that point is a vivid stream-of-consciousness collage that tracks how Li'l Bit dotes on, loves, and then is loved (far too literally) by Peck, all while her family looks by unknowingly. (All the other roles are played by Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan, and Marnie Schulenburg.) The small consolation is that Peck is her uncle only by marriage, so his desires, which over the years extend from simple time alone to a pre-teen photo shoot to a rendezvous in a hotel room, are more discomforting than outright incestuous. Nonetheless, by the time she's fully grown, Li'l Bit has developed plenty of excellent reasons for glancing so often at her rear-view mirror.

Performing such an action in a car can suggest reality but still distort it; the same is true of relying on it as a primary dramatic staging device. Though Whoriskey efficiently moves around the pieces of set and narrative, ensuring you never get lost or disoriented as the story jumps around, often haphazardly, in time, she's rockier at convincing you of the central relationship. She has apparently not decided whether it should be taken at face value or viewed through the gauzy Brechtian overtones that are already present in the script. (Cast members narrate subtitles from an apparently old-fashioned guide called "Safety First—You and Driver Education," and Li'l Bit and other characters step out of the action to speak to us about things we couldn't otherwise know.)

Either approach would work if committed to, but the two don't blend easily given the lead performances. Reaser, well known from her work on Grey's Anatomy and in the Twilight movies, has (mostly) chosen the alienation route. She renders Li'l Bit as a backward-looking cipher lodged in the present and unable to completely transform into earlier versions of herself; you understand, as Reaser plays her, the way the character died a little at a time over a yawning span of time. But, in the "present," the character is juicy and even feisty, at odds with the girl who fought just for subsistence. Reaser is handsome and sturdy onstage, and attacks her role with gusto, but it's not enough to either draw you in to her pain or keep you at a sufficient objective distance from it.

Butz doesn't reach for either strong feeling or verifiable Verfremdungseffekt, but instead opts for a more openly theatrical approach. He paints Peck with a greasy, grotesque brush from the outset that leaves little question as to what sort of man he is. Butz portrays him as a bumpkin so stereotypical and so leering—imagine his Tony-winning Freddy from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on steroids—that you never believe for an instant he'd keep his yearnings under wraps long enough to fool anyone. As likable as he is always onstage, Butz is able to sell it, but his lack of shading gives the play a lopsided feel no one involved quite knows how to address.

Nothing, though, can detour the play entirely. Vogel's snapshot of a sector of the country as it progresses through a time of great social change is a compelling one; and the characters inhabiting it, even beyond Li'l Bit and Peck, are richly drawn. (The scenes around the dinner table, in which Li'l Bit realizes just how alone someone of her more enlightened generation is, are especially delicious.) And that the playwright has crafted such a watchable, even lovable, script about some truly detestable things, and made a learning experience of it, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

But How I Learned to Drive, like any play, needs something to power its forward locomotion. This production is pulled in too many different directions, and that makes it both a difficult trip and one that seldom has a clear final destination. Li'l Bit and Peck should guide you through the uncertainty, and even if you don't like where you're going (and most of the time you probably shouldn't), their velocity should never be in question. But too much of the time, Whoriskey leaves you and they, as the narration now and again describes, "idling in the neutral gear."

How I Learned To Drive
Through March 11
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
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