Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing in Roundabout Theatre Company’s BIRTHDAY CANDLES. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022
Mary-Louise Parker in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)
Over at the Manhattan Theatre Company’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, something entirely different is being channeled forward, something that is baked with authenticity in a way that
Birthday Candles could only wish for when blowing itself out. The emotionality of Paula Vogel’s piece is as rich and dense on the inside as it is on the outside, folded in and around a difficult subject matter with an artful wonder. And for that, all our wishes for the season have come true, thanks to How I Learned to Drive.
I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to see
How I Learned to Drive for about 25 years. I was here, living in NYC when these two fine actors graced the Vineyard Theatre stage blasting forth this Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1997, but for some unknown reason, I never got the chance to see it. It’s not like I didn’t know about it or that I had no interest. Maybe it was sold out, or I was too slow with my credit card. Maybe I just couldn’t afford to go to it at the time. Who knows. But I knew I needed and wanted to see it. Then and now, and by the grace of those crazy theatre gods, I have my chance. Finally. And with the same two leads. Who would have thought that would be possible?
David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)
How I Learned to Drive, written with a strong smart edge by Paula Vogel ( ) is not the easiest of stories to engage with, or sit through, but easy to love. The play is difficult, and constantly uncomfortable, shifting and focusing its eye on an alcoholic pedophile named Uncle Peck, portrayed with tight ease by the phenomenal David Morse (Broadway’s Indecent ) seducing, slowly and methodically, his niece, played to perfection by Mary-Louise Parker (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh ; HBO’s “ The Sound Inside “). They both did honor to the same parts 25 years ago, and here, on Broadway, they find themselves enmeshed once again in its difficultness and complicit discomfort. Angels in America
Parker is god-sent, having the brilliant knack of easily and methodically slipping back and forth through time zones. She makes it all work, by never pandering to the teenager within as she is steadfastly groomed from the age of 11 for this sexual abuse by her trusted Uncle. By giving her an inner life and meaning within her physically altered presence, she neatly fits. It’s an astounding transitional formulation that she repeatedly enlists, making us believe in her wholely. She grounds it in her presence, making the whole uncomfortable story powerful and utterly captivating.
She, and the play, never lets us off the hook. But lays the whole process out in an epic nonlinear construct. We flick around the years, unpacking the process and bookmarked with a difficult metaphor. We are given only her own family nickname, Li’l Bit, but Parker finds much more in her essence with unfiltered ease, embodying her with clarity, even as we squirm uncomfortably in our seats. As directed wisely by Mark Brokaw (Broadway’s
) and crafted miraculously by Vogel, we become entwined within the theatrical construction, even when sometimes the driving metaphors start to feel a bit too sharp for their own good. But the remarkable thing about this play is just how wisely we are ushered through, teasing us in, yet never making it feel heavy-handed or blatant. Heisenberg
Alyssa May Gold, David Morse, Mary-Louise Parker, Johanna Day, and Chris Myers in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)
Even when presented with that uncomfortable and disturbing monologue by Li’l Bit’s aunt about how she sees the whole thing and states most emphatically who she thinks might be responsible. It’s one of the most complicated reformations, beautifully unpacked by Johanna Day (Broadway’s
). It’s tense with contradictory knowledge, fleshing out an idea that we all don’t really want to think about. She is just one of three brilliant actors playing numerous parts in what is essentially an all-knowing Greek Chorus, the others being Alyssa May Gold (Broadway’s The Nap Arcadia) and Chris Myers (Second Stage’s ). Each has their delicious moment (s) to rise and strike us down with, but inside that one condensed accusation, the realm stays focused and empathetic, pulling off a balancing act that is beyond impressive. Whorl Inside a Loop
Parker is the core, finding uncomfortable authenticity in her shocking memory play, but Morse’s role is as key to the drive and forward motion as anyone in the cast. He finds the troubled human inside, making it impossible to see him only as a monster, while doing sly monstrous things to this teenager’s head. It’s completely unsettling, flipping from this likable man who has her back ‘respectfully’ in a way no one does in her dysfunctional family, to a man who says things to his young niece that drip with tense coercion and manipulation. Morse is astonishing in the role, making him believable and delivering us through the piece without letting us ever fully hate him, even while being horrified by what we are witnessing. It’s an astonishing leap, and the two together are electric, justifiably worth the wait.
Johanna Day, Mary-Louise Parker, Alyssa May Gold, and Chris Myers in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)
Johanna Day, who was also in the original Vineyard production, finds force by placing each scenario in a playbook that metaphorically enhances the intention while wrapping itself most delicately from a standardized driver’s manual. “
Shifting forward from first to second gear,” is about as clear as it gets as we watch what follows. Not just in the front seat of Uncle Peck’s car, which is uncomfortable enough. And while he does dutifully teach her well how to drive safely and with honor, the play also unpacks a complicit home environment, with no one really getting off the hook, even when they try to point the blame far away from themselves. “ She’s a sly one….she’s twisted Peck around her little finger.”
On a simplistic but very effective set, designed by Rachel Hauck (Broadway’s
), with stark lighting by Mark McCullough (Broadway’s Hadestown Jesus Christ Superstar), subtle costuming by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s ), and a solid sound design and original music by David Van Tieghem (Broadway’s Slave Play ), Burn This How I Learned to Drive takes the authentic route to the core. It’s a far more complicated story to tell when compared to Birthday Candles, and maybe it’s not even fair to put them in the same category (or review), but in terms of one playing hard to make us cry or the other actually finding its way in to make us uncomfortable with the horrific truth, How I Learned to Drive wins big. And deserves all the praise and awards it will most likely be given or nominated for this theatrical season.
David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in How I Learned to Drive at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)
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