How I Learned to Drive
If you’re one of the many theatergoers that, for whatever reason, has long lamented never seeing the original production of Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “How I Learned to Drive,” the theater gods have given you a second chance. Or maybe more specifically, the powers-that-be at Manhattan Theater Club, which is not only giving this deeply disturbing yet incredibly human masterpiece its long-deserved Broadway debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, but with its original stars, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, giving performances that surpass the extraordinary ones they delivered 25 years ago.
A morally complex examination of sexual abuse, Vogel’s play is told as a series of memories from the now very-grown L’il Bit (Parker) in vignettes that toggle back and forth (primarily) from the times she was 11 to the time she was 18, charting her unquestionably inappropriate relationship with her middle-aged uncle Peck (Morse).
And while we can all agree no minor can consent to such a relationship, Vogel is smarter than to paint this story in shades of black and white. The fatherless L’il Bit clearly craves the older man’s attentions, while being smart enough – or maybe just scared enough – to not give up her virginity. Meanwhile, Peck, seemingly upstanding and “happily” married to L’il Bit’s aunt Mary, is also obviously damaged emotionally, which may be why earning L’il Bit’s “love” seems almost as important to him as gaining her physical affection.
Such tricky material can easily falter in lesser hands, but director Mark Brokaw keeps his hands firmly on the wheel as he guides his actors. Parker’s breathtaking balancing act, as she constantly navigates L’il Bit’s ever-changing emotional states and manipulates her body language so it does not always correspond with her words, is more thrilling than anything I’ve ever seen at Cirque du Soleil. She’s definitely in the running for her third Tony Award.
As he did originally, Morse chooses to play Peck with supreme understatement, slightly Southern charm and a very soft speaking voice (which, admittedly may not always carry at the Friedman), making everything he says and does sound utterly reasonable and harmless, even when we know – or suspect – it isn’t. This is especially true of one chilling scene, the only one without Parker, as Peck narrates a visit with his young (unseen) nephew Bobby.
Ultimately, Vogel makes Peck’s eventual downfall both inevitable yet still profoundly sad. Indeed, we realize long before the play’s denouement that his ultimate fate cannot be avoided – especially as Vogel has brilliantly structured the play as a miniature Greek tragedy, with three actors as commentators (using the chapters of a driving manual as metaphor for his and L’il Bit’s journey), as well as playing a few other small parts.
First and foremost of this accomplished trio is the show’s other original cast member, Johanna Day, whose two major monologues – a comic one as L’il Bit’s mother Lucy, giving instructions on how not to get drunk, and a dramatic one as Peck’s wife Mary – are nothing short of being master classes in acting. Alyssa May Gold stands out in her spot-on portrayal of L’il Bit’s “old-fashioned” grandmother, whose philosophy on men and sex proves damaging to all the women in her family, and Chris Myers does well as her bullish, equally unenlightened husband.
Like L’il Bit after her 18th birthday, you’re in the driver’s seat now. So, grab a ticket, buckle up and experience one of the most exhilarating, and yes unsettling, rides of this – or any – theatrical season.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse, Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold, Chris Myers
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036