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The Lying Lesson

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Carol Kane and Mickey Sumner.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

That hair, that face, that voice... There's no question from the instant you first behold the woman who's apparently just broken into a secluded Maine house that you're looking at Bette Davis. The aura she exudes, of haughty stuffiness tinged with a remote yet unquestionable understanding of emotion, only heightens your confidence in who you're dealing with in Craig Lucas's new play, The Lying Lesson, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. Two other key questions, however, are not so easily addressed.

Foremost among them: What? Soon after she's planted herself in the living room and been discovered by a young woman named Minnie, who claims she's come to fix a clock, Davis reveals her reason for being there: She's buying the house, is scheduled to close on it soon, and was invited to dinner with the current owners—one of whom was just put into the hospital. But she's been given permission to stay and get a feel for it before signing the final papers.

We're given no reason to not believe this excuse, although it doesn't explain Minnie. The timing of her appearance really is remarkable, isn't it? And her claims that she's never even heard of Davis, still at the time of the play (1981) one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world, are a bit suspect. Still, she's young (under 30), and her easygoing nature and willingness to help ingratiates her sufficiently to Davis to let the two become—well, if nothing else, then quickly tolerant of each other. Enough to share a few pleasant words and a drink or two, and for Davis to seriously mull the possibility of making Minnie her new assistant.

In these early scenes, Lucas does not shy from delivering what he initially promises: a getting-to-know-you tale between two women separated by swirlingly different decades and worldviews, each of whom ostensibly has something to teach the other about standing upright in a world filled with mediocrity. And as long as he confines himself to this pursuit, Lucas turns out engaging, and mildly spicy, dialogue that captures the rocky ease with which new friendships are formed. But as we're becoming accustomed to the self-made Davis encouraging and inspiring Minnie to take control of her own life, Lucas introduces a new plot point that reconfigures a charming character comedy into a rickety mystery that's considerably less interesting.

Much of the second act concerns what Minnie knows, how Davis learns it, and what the repercussions are, developments of narrative that might be adequate as individual elements in a longer and more intricate play, but that are neither weighty nor entertaining enough to serve as the main event. Except for a couple of scenes in which Davis establishes herself for the seemingly clueless Minnie, with a library-sponsored home film festival and an admittedly sparkling recollection of working with Joan Crawford on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, there's not much here that's designed to appeal to those hungering for either a crackling stage saga or a campy evocation of Old Hollywood Meets New Moviegoer.

That raises the second question: Why? Amusing though it may occasionally be on its own terms, especially when Davis runs roughshod over her reputation, The Lying Lesson does not have a point of view as strong as the ones that can be found in many of Lucas's other better plays, such as Prelude to a Kiss, Small Tragedy, or even the far-from-successful The Singing Forest (Lucas's last new Off-Broadway play, from 2009). It constantly cries out for either bigger laughs or bigger (well, any) sobs, and because it receives neither, gets flooded with middle-ground mush. Director Pam MacKinnon, who's staged with economy and gentle elegance on Neil Patel's coolly rustic set, can't bring together all the pieces.

The only thing the play unquestionably offers is a gleaming opportunity for mimicry for the actress cast as Davis, and Carol Kane does not pass up her chance here. The stiff walk, the arched neck, the eyebrows that seem to control every other part of her body, and of course the craggy line delivery that makes even the shortest phrase a fine feast of pebbles are on astounding display. But they're anchored with legitimate psychology that hints at a fascinated, terrified woman: When Davis is betrayed, or at least feels she's been betrayed, Kane seems to draw back a mile within her own skin and resorts to perfecting the mechanics of clipping her speech or adjusting her hat—focusing on the externals, just as a dyed-in-the-wool personality performer might. It's a fine, layered portrayal that never becomes either a caricature or tiring.

Mickey Sumner fares rather less well as Minnie, getting stuck in her own accent, and never investigating what makes the younger woman worth knowing. This is not necessarily Sumner's fault: She gives it her all, but Lucas simply hasn't made this an equal battle of wills. You care more about what Kane will do next and how she'll do it than you care the progression of Davis's relationship with Minnie—the closest thing the play has to an identifiable fulcrum.

The Lying Lesson is supposed to concern matters of identity: what it really means, how it's perceived differently between the generations, and how to create it if you don't have it. But without a more compelling method of excavating it, even from someone so famous that she should need no additional help, the play becomes a costume-and-wig parade that leaves you wondering whether it or its playwright really grasps what exactly it's supposed to be. Imitation alone is not always the highest form of flattery.

The Lying Lesson
Through March 31
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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