Monday, October 21, 2013

'How I Learned To Drive': Many-Layered Play In An Excellent Revival by Tongue In Cheek

Jake Lipman and Lynn Berg
Photo by Maeghan Donohue

There are just a handful of playwrights who have been successful at finding something to laugh at within the confines of family dysfunction and emotional pain. Think of Christopher Durang, who chronicled disordered lives in such works as The Marriage of Bette and Boo. That play, which included multiple episodes of stillborn babies, one alcoholic parent, and another brutishly abusive one, was remarkable for its playwright’s ability to mine the material for a rich vein of genuinely funny moments.

Another playwright working this same vein is Paula Vogel, whose 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive is now having an excellent revival by the Tongue In Cheek theater company at the Bridge Theatre.

Tongue In Cheek could not have chosen a better vehicle to serve its mission of producing “thought-provoking comedies.” Ms. Vogel not only travels most comfortably in Durang territory, she actual ups the ante by giving us complicated characters whom we get to understand only slowly over the course of the evening. 

How I Learned To Drive is a memory play, narrated from the safe distance of time by a woman who was a victim of sexual molestation and a decade-long pursuit by a beloved uncle, the only family member who ever gave her the attention and affection she longed for. 

The play unfolds in flashbacks, covering the time when the girl, nicknamed Li’l Bit by her family (the nickname itself has a sexual connotation), is between the ages of 11 and 18. The brilliance of the writing is that the relationship between Li’l Bit and her Uncle Peck takes on many levels of meaning that challenge easy analysis or judgment.  Uncle Peck is obsessed with Li’l Bit, who, at times, uses that obsession to manipulate him into giving her what she wants. She, of course, doesn’t really know how to handle him, and she grows increasingly confused by his attention, her own feelings, and even the power she thinks she has over him. 

Uncle Peck is, in short, a pathetic pedophile, but because he is so lost and needy himself, and because for most of the play he straddles but doesn’t cross the ultimate line, he becomes a surprisingly (and disturbingly) sympathetic character.  We believe Li’l Bit’s contention that she can handle him.

The playwright’s sharp humor comes out mostly in the actions of other family members, who serve as Greek chorus to the goings-on.  Li’l Bit’s grandmother, who we learn was married at the age of 14, constantly makes sexual comments and responds to her misogynistic husband as if he were a naughty boy. Li’l Bit’s mother and her Aunt Mary, Uncle Peck’s wife, both know that something untoward is going on in between them but choose not to intervene.  “He’s so good with them when they get to be this age,” says Aunt Mary. 

And when Li’l Bit turns to her mother, she is offered advice on such things as how a lady should order and drink alcohol, along with the value of using the bathroom at a restaurant to vomit or to soak one’s head in the sink.  “A wet woman is less conspicuous than a drunk woman,” she advises. That’s before we learn that Uncle Peck is an alcoholic, and we witness Li’l Bit starting to drink under his tutelage. 

Mimicking the unpeeling of buried memories, the play reveals its secrets gradually and without regard to strict chronology.  The deepest layers are withheld from us, and we are drawn in—“seduced” might be a better word—by the humor and the gentle tone until we realize we too are being manipulated, and it becomes challenging to side with anyone. This family is a mess through and through.

The Tongue In Cheek production is well served by its cast of six, with Jake Lipman—the company’s artistic director—in the role of Li’l Bit, and Lynn Berg as Uncle Peck.  Both of their performances give us richly realized complex characters, and when one must be sacrificed to spare the other, it’s difficult not to wish for a different solution.

The lead performers are nicely supported by the rest of the cast—Shelley Little as Mother, Joan D. Saunders as Grandma, Holland Hamilton as Aunt Mary, and Michael Edmund as Big Papa. They serve as the primary source of the darkly comic tone that keeps the audience off guard.  

How I Learned To Drive is a significant play dealing with one of life's ugly little corners, and it does so with sly humor and without histrionics. This type of play can be a real challenge to pull off effectively (even Durang doesn’t always get it right) without venturing into Theater of the Absurd territory.  Much credit goes to Tongue In Cheek and its fine company of actors, who will be continuing the play’s run until November 2 at the Bridge Theatre, 244 West 54th Street.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

No comments:

Post a Comment