How I Learned to Drive

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    February 1, 2012

    (Review by Tulis McCall)

    From the minute this play begins, the dullness of it creeps out into the audience like that spooky cloud that came to kill all the non-Jewish babies in The Ten Commandments. Except that this cloud is invisible. Still, it packs a wallop.

    And the source of this dullness is our narrator, Li’l Bit (Elizabeth Reaser), who is about to tell us of the way that she learned to drive. It was in close, as in very close, proximity to her uncle Peck (Norbert Leo Butz) who was pretty much there from the minute she was born. He held her in his hand that day. The same hand that will be used later on with much different intent.

    We flow back and forth in time to see how Li’l Bit got herself into this pickle. I refer to this as her choice with some trepidation, because girls are often given greater responsibility than they a) cab bear and b) deserve in situations like these. A grown man will tell you with a straight face that the 11 year-old led him on. A person you wouldn’t trust with a pen knif is capable of leading a grown person on to the point where he loses control.

    Righty-o.

    In some ways I THINK this is the edge on which Ms. Vogel’s writing balances. Were we in the hands of an actor who could handle this, perhaps that would have been clearer. As it is, subtlety and nuance are pretty much tossed out with the bathwater here as this story unfolds. I do not mean to say that Ms. Reaser doesn’t try. She is fully invested in this work, but the goal exceeds her grasp.

    If you do happen into the theatre, however, all is not lost. The supporting cast, in particular Jennifer Regan (Female Greek Chorus) is stupendous. With a Carol Burnett essence she plays several women – including both Li’l Bit ’s mother and Uncle Peck’s wife with such clarity and perception that the world as these people saw it becomes very clear indeed. It is as complicated a place as you could imagine, and it is all hidden under that gauze of appearance and manners. Try not to do what you shouldn’t do, and if you cannot manage that, at least don’t get caught and shame your family. As the Male Greek Chorus Kevin Cahoon spans generations of men. Everyone from a frightened boy at a dance to a crotchey grandfather are given the full spread of cards that good men deserve. Although she has not so much work Marnie Schulenburg (Teenage Greek Chorus) shines mightily.

    Butz gives it his best shot, and he succeeds in losing his boyish good-natured persona that so many of us are used to seeing on stage. His uncle Peck is not only filled with inappropriate lust, he is filled with the hope that it is based on something more virtuous. He is a misguided abuser surrounded with nothing but opportunity.

    This collaboration is like an 1963 Chevy with a broken steering mechanism. It looks great when it is sitting still, but don’t bet on it going anywhere.

    "First-rate revival."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Delivers an emotional wallop."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "It’s an uncomfortable play to watch. And that’s exactly as it should be."
    Frank Scheck for New York Post

    "Never slips satisfyingly into gear."
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "Vivid, compelling and sometimes funny play."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Disturbs and entertains in equal measure."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Even the best vehicle can travel only so far with a flat tire."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "Still packs an emotional wallop."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Variety