A CurtainUp Review
How I Learned to Drive
By Elyse Sommer
In our last review, (Names,) the late critic Harold Clurman bewails the state of the theater with "If I'm moved once during a performance I consider myself lucky." Too bad Clurman can't come back from that place where they lay critics to rest to see Paula Vogel's wonderfully original new dark comedy How I Learned to Drive. Its impact on the audience's emotions is thunderous and the hour and a half spent with its characters will niggle at the memory for a long time to come.
Ms. Vogel has achieved the seemingly impossible: A story about a disturbing subject, pedophilia, that is as funny--yes, really,--as it is disturbing. Li'l Bit (Mary-Louise Parker) and Uncle Peck (David Morse) are painted with the delicate brush strokes of a sumi painting, more subtle than sensational, and as unstereotypical a victim and victimizer as Lolita and Humbert Humbert (from Nabokov's Lolita which the playwright credits as her inspiration).
Happily, the always adventurous Vineyard Theatre Company has also mounted it with a cast as strong as the script and a director sensitive to the complexity of the characters and the situations--(Mark Brokaw who last distinguished himself with This Is Our Youth) . Before I say one more word, this is one of the must-see events of the season, the shot in the arm to put new muscle into the so-called fabulous invalid.
To sum up the story without spoiling its suspense, How I Learned to Drive recounts the relationship between a young girl from a tightly knit lower-middle-class family and her uncle-by-marriage. The place is Maryland "before the malls took over" and the action moves back and forth between scenes set during the 1960's and 70's, in the same unsystematic manner painful memories tend to scamper through our minds.
Mary-Louise Parker is as convincing as L'il Bit at age eleven as at thirty-five. Her portrait of a young girl torn between love for her uncle and guilty distress about what's happening between them is truly heart-wrenching. David Morse who looks and sounds amazingly like President Clinton, is mesmerizing as the uncle--charming and, in many ways, good and kind; as much victim as victimizer.
Three other actors (Michael Showalter, Johanna Day and Kerry O'Malley)-- listed as Male, Female and Teenage Greek Chorus--play various other members of the family. They are not only versatile, but as funny and moving as the two leads. In contrast to the riotous "The Mother's Guide to Social Drinking" There's Aunt Mary's truly gut-wrenching monologue defending her husband, (Uncle Peck) and blaming Li'l Bit for what is happening.
Using only a few chairs and a table, director Brokaw manages to smoothly convey not only the cinematic flashbacks and forwards, but to subtly alert the audience to what is going on during those driving lessons, even when Li'l Bit and Peck seem at opposite sides of the stage. The background music and lighting contribute much to the seamless transition from one scene, and one time frame to another. The unsettling picture of a crime that is an almost love affair, is a triumph for everyone involved.
Located right across the street from the new Century Center theater where Minor Demons recently opened, this world premiere at The Vineyard underscores our comment that this is indeed an Off-Broadway neighborhood worth visiting.