by Paula Vogel
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Starring Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz
Second Stage Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Paula Vogel’s 1997 How I Learned to Drive—currently having its first mainstream NYC revival courtesy of Second Stage—is its ability to seduce the audience into thinking a child abuser isn’t as bad a fellow as he is sad, sincere, smart, funny, tortured, misguided and lonely—a sophisticate displaced in a backwoods society. And no, I’m not being arch or sarcastic.

                        In this narrative of this memory play the adult woman who, growing up in a small Southern town was called L’il Bit (Elizabeth Reaser), looks back upon her relationship with her Uncle (by marriage) nicknamed Peck (Norbert Leo Butz), but not in chronological order. The play skips around in the past, back and forth, as needed. We’re introduced first to the things that make Peck genuinely attractive and sympathetic, that deny us the easy privilege of seeing him as a monster; that rather, give us an insight into how what I guess I’ll call “the gentle abusers” (as opposed to the violent ones; violence is not Peck’s style at all) are seen by their victims. And with the most minimal propping, and a “Greek chorus” of three (Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan and Marnie Schulenburg particularized in the program as Male, Female and Teenage respectively) playing all other roles, the show proceeds, piece-by-piece, to build two deep pathologies for two deep personalities, proving L’il Bit far less in control than she seems at the beginning, and Peck far more insidious a menace than his easy solicitousness (“We won’t do anything that you don’t want to do”) readily betrays. In fact, it isn’t until the final puzzle piece is in place that inappropriate dysfunction becomes the stuff of a child’s—a woman’s—lifelong neuroses. And by then it’s too late, for we’ve been seduced too. And share the child’s difficulty in reconciling the monster with the man we know as only sad, sincere, smart, funny, tortured, misguided and lonely.

                        What’s even more astonishing is how persuasive this seduction remains, even if you’re familiar with the play. A testament to the writing, of course—but no less so to this new production, directed by Kate Whoriskey,  in which the always remarkable Norbert Leo Butz dazzles with his sheer, uncompromising and fearless committment to his character's agenda;  and Elizabeth Reaser is perhaps somewhat more daring in her portrayal of L'il Bit than we've seen before; she is likewise unafraid to portray her character's sexual ambivalence…by which I mean the temptation to enable Peck and fall under his spell for good. Given that her face and figure suggest unequivocal voluptuousness, this is an incredibly bold choice, and in the best theatrical sense, it adds danger to the proceedings. Which creates a wonderful balancing act against the play's gentility.

                        How I Learned to Drive remains Paula Vogel's best play, and at Second Stage it has a production that would have been worthy of its debut. Not many revivals fare so well in the shadow of recent memory…

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