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Theatre in Review: How I Learned to Drive (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

David Morse, Mary-Louise Parker. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Many plays make a strong impact when first seen, but the world moves on and they fade with time. Twenty-five years after its debut, How I Learned to Drive has only gained in power. It takes an extremely nervy playwright to present an incendiary situation in such calm, understated fashion, letting the audience make of it what it will. But that is Vogel's method, and, despite her controlled manner, she doesn't mince words. "It's 1969," says Li'l Bit, the narrator and leading character. "And I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all. In short, I am seventeen years old, parking off a dark lane with a married man on an early summer night."

It's a lovely, lyrical opening and immediately we see Li'l Bit, parked with that "married man," the much-older Peck, obviously not the first time. Indeed, an air of intimacy prevails. After a little verbal skirmishing, he gets her to open her blouse. As he undoes her bra, she says, witheringly, "You would make a good brain surgeon with that dexterity." But she isn't necessarily displeased when he ecstatically praises her "celestial orbs."

Then she says, "Uncle Peck -- we've got to go. I've got graduation rehearsal at school tomorrow morning. And you should get on home to Aunt Mary."

You've got to admire the skill with which the play lures us into its trap, sketching in what appears to be a mildly risqué situation and, without raising its voice, making blindingly clear that it is something much, much worse. Even more daringly, the scene is presented without comment. Already, a multitude of questions appear: Doesn't Li'l Bit seem a tad complicit in their relationship? Isn't Peck's manner strangely courtly? ("I'm not gonna do anything you don't me to do," he tells his niece, before adding, proudly, as if seeking her approval, "And I've been good all week. Not a single drink.") What is one to make of it all?.

These early scenes contain the thrill that comes only from a playwright who is willing to roll the dice, gambling that in presenting an incestuous, pedophilic relationship, she won't instantly lose the audience; indeed, she trusts our natural curiosity, our need to understand more deeply the nature of this transgressive, obviously immoral, and yet apparently consensual relationship. Employing a series of flashbacks and a scrambled time frame, she does exactly that, knowing that her careful, thoughtful approach to a sensational subject will be all the more hair-raising.

Scene after scene adds disturbing new information. Li'l Bit celebrates her sixteenth birthday with Peck in an inn where, he says, the attitude is "European," meaning she can order a martini or three. By evening's end, she says, almost taunting him, "You're not taking me upstairs?" Peck, an amateur photographer, shoots the thirteen-year-old Li'l Bit, urging her to strike ever more provocative poses while envisioning her in Playboy a few years hence. When she balks, he adds, in his soothing voice, "There's nothing wrong in what we're doing. I'm very proud of you." It's a technique he will use again and again, shooing away guilt while insisting on secrecy. "We're just enjoying each other's company," he insists.

But if that's true, why do we hear about the gifted Li'l Bit dropping out of college, having spent a couple of semesters drinking a fifth of bourbon a day? What about the monologue in which Peck teaches a young male relative how to fish before taking him to "a secret place," a treehouse where they can have a beer and a meal? And what about the insular world he builds for himself and Li'l Bit on the late-night drives disguised as automotive lessons? There's so much hysteria in our culture these days about grooming; well, here's the real thing, a painstaking process exercised with apparent tenderness over a period of years. "I'm a patient man," Peck likes to say, in a moment of unsettling candor.

At the same time, Vogel demonstrates how the environment in which Li'l Bit is raised -- populated with the members of her fractious, often trashy Maryland family -- makes a fertile breeding ground for abuse. Her nickname, bestowed by her mother, is an allusion to her genitalia; as she enters adolescence, her newly enormous breasts cause her to be uncomfortable in her body and a figure of fun at school. Her shrewish grandmother, once a bride of fourteen, insists that sex is a nasty, painful experience. Her mother and grandmother take part in a call and response, denouncing men as nasty, vulgar, and primitive.

Then again, Vogel -- who pitches a curve ball in virtually every scene -- shows Peck treating his driving lessons with grave seriousness, instructing Li'l Bit in the importance of safety, and making clear his concern for her welfare. And what to make of the adult Li'l Bit, on a bus trip, picking up a high school senior for a one-nighter and experiencing for the first time the kick of being the adult in charge? Seeing How I Learned to Drive is not a passive experience; it demands your engagement and dares you to make judgments, albeit at your own risk.

It's not until very late that Vogel delivers the coup de grâce in a pair of scenes that bring the Li'l Bit -- Peck affair into high relief, revealing its full destructive potential. First is a mortifying hotel-room encounter on Li'l Bit's eighteenth birthday, a date that Peck has long awaited; by then, Li'l Bit is desperate to break free and Peck's devouring, humiliating need is on full display. The other is an origin story, so to speak; it's the first of Peck's driving lessons, given to an eleven-year-old Li'l Bit, who, being too small, is invited onto her uncle's lap. Suddenly we understand how profound Peck's manipulations have been all along. Both sequences are rooted in the worst kind of evil -- the sort that looks initially like love.

This Manhattan Theatre Club revival brings together the stars of the original 1997 production with their director, Mark Brokaw. Their work is subtle yet devastatingly revealing; no nuance, however disturbing, is left unexplored. Mary-Louise Parker -- drunkenly balancing a cocktail glass on her, unconsciously assuming a come-hither pose for the camera, and recoiling is disgust after a once-sacrosanct line has been crossed -- is both victim and survivor, detailing the damage done to her in a flat ironic drawl, yet displaying a tensile strength that keeps her going. David Morse's Peck is such a good-natured soul, speaking in a practiced hush, and unafraid of voicing his many regrets, that you'd never mistake him for a monster. (The scene in which he consoles the tenderhearted little Cousin Bobby, confiding to him the news that real men cry, too, is possibly the most chilling thing in the play.) The rapport between Parker and Morse -- a carefully choreographed dance of seduction and shifting power dynamics -- feels nerve-wrackingly accurate. Johanna Day, also from the original cast, is equally superb -- first as Li'l Bit's mother, whose attempt at giving "a guide to social drinking" is undermined because she is too drunk to find her spotlight, and later as Peck's wife, who knows all and waits for her husband's eventual return. "She's a sly one, that one is," she says, bitterly, of Li'l Bit, adding, in an eerie echo of her husband, "I'm a very patient woman."

How I Learned to Drive calls for a very simple presentation, here honored by Rachel Hauck's set design, a kind of abstracted highway with telephone poles, which is transformed by the constantly shifting color palette of Mark McCullough's lighting. These are underscored by sound cues courtesy of David Van Tieghem, who also makes effective use of such pop tunes as "Dream Baby" and "Dedicated to the One I Love." Costume designer Dede Ayite and video designer Lucy Mackinnon also make solid contributions.

How I Learned to Drive is one of the first American plays to delve into its subject matter, probing matters that were rarely openly discussed in 1997. Since then, the horror stories have proliferated throughout the entertainment industry, the Roman Catholic Church, and elsewhere. Yet a play set in Maryland in the 1960s and '70s has assumed a timeless quality, largely because Vogel allows her characters their full humanity while refusing to excuse their crimes. Thanks to the brilliance of its construction and the power of its insights, you can call it, without contradiction, a modern masterpiece. In a program note, Vogel wonders if any of her future writing will ever touch so many lives; it's a very good question. --David Barbour

(22 April 2022)

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