Despite other critics raving that the revival of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive was equal to the original production, I found the Second Stage's revival to be weaker on all fronts. I was reticent to even buy tickets because I remembered being riveted by David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in the original Off-Broadway production (directed by Mark Brokaw). They both seemed so suited to their roles and their "voices" really fit each character.
The success of this play is entirely dependent on the two leads. Elizabeth Reaser plays Lil Bit, from age 11 to 40 reflecting upon the sexual relationship she had with her pedophile Uncle Peck, played by Norbert Leo Butz. Structured around a Greek Chorus reciting the aspects of her driving lessons with Peck, the rest of Lil Bit's family is played by the same actors as in the Chorus.
Butz plays Uncle Peck as childlike, desperate, weak, and frenetic. There was something particularly creepy about his nervous energy. He feels desperate and menacing from beginning to end. In contrast, Morse's Uncle Peck was none of those things. He was oddly gentle, trustworthy, heartbreaking and broken. You felt bad for him at times--being able to feel sympathetic toward a pedophile was so unnerving and yet one of the intense powers of the piece. It was much closer to the end of the play that you saw Morse as Peck unhinged and it was that dramatic tension that builds in the play and builds in their relationship. Against Parker's Lil Bit, the dynamic between child and adult was more balanced between the two. Who was in control, who was seducing who, who wanted more from the other--it was what made the narrative so engaging. Blame could not be easily placed with one person or the other throughout most of the play.
As it played out in the revival, Reaser makes Lil Bit significantly more of a temptress than I remember Parker ever being. Reaser seemed to think she had to act from her breasts and as much as Lil Bit's rapid physical development was an aspect of the story I found that ploy to be distracting and ineffective (and the costuming did no one any favors in this regard). The challenge of Lil Bit is being able to convincingly play her at a broad range of ages and with shifting goals (desperate for attention, desperate for love, coquette, curious, wholly innocent, broken herself). Reaser occasionally had fleeting moments where the renditions of her character at 11, 13, and 18 were appropriately nuanced and different but these moments did not last for whole scenes. Most of the time she was an abstract character of an abstract age, hyper-sexualized.
There was something to Parker being able to be both the child and the adult remembering the child in her scenes. She was able to convey her desperate want to please this father figure and sometimes being accidentally sexual in the process, and sometimes intentionally sexual. Her confusion about love, sex, affection and attention was delicately blended. Whereas Reaser chose to play the role as intentionally and knowingly sexual it seems from almost beginning to end (even if the story is not told in chronological order). Since her interpretation of the character was consistently sexual and
vague as to age, much of the subtlety of the character's arc was lost. Butz also seemed to make Peck ingratiating and creepy from beginning to end, thus deflating a great deal of the dramatic tension.
The direction by Kate Whoriskey did no one any favors. The delicate subtleties of memories and painful reenactments were all painted with the same brush. Rather than a narrative flow, it felt like independent vignettes with nary a through-line keeping it all together. By making consistent acting choices throughout, the growth of the characters, the shifts in the power struggle and the time and place were hard to follow. With a cartoon-colored set
straight out of Edward Scissorhands, the tone seemed to often be
looking for laughs where few were warranted.
One could argue that the actors and director chose to interpret the play differently than the original. Fine. On their own merit with no consideration to the original, I found this production of this play trite. After years and years of sexual abuse material on stage and screen, this revival offered me no new angle or interpretation. It should not be so easy for me to label the characters or assign blame--yet temptress and creep seem to suit these choices fine. The narrative ebbs and flows of time, the color of the character's memories, and the gloss we are supposed to see the character putting on the storytelling were all blurred and muddied here.