BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Even the best vehicle can travel only so far with a flat tire and unfortunately that’s the case with Second Stage Theatre’s revival of Paula Vogel’s award-winning 1998 play, “How I Learned to Drive,” which opened on Monday.
Norbert Leo Butz provides a winning performance as the middle-aged man who teaches his teenaged niece how to operate a car even as he molests her over the course of several years. Three other actors do well by the several characters they each depict in Vogel’s deceptively humorous and gentle but finally devastating study in emotional manipulation.
The trouble here is with Elizabeth Reaser, known best for the “Twilight” films, who gives a charmless portrayal of the niece. Speaking monotonously and looking sour, Reaser mostly plays Li’l Bit on a single, sullen note. That’s too bad, since Li’l Bit is the central figure who narrates the story. The audience needs to like her in order to go all the way on the emotional journey that the playwright maps so beautifully.
Framed from Li’l Bit’s grown-up viewpoint, the multi-scene 100-minute play gradually moves backwards from 1969 (when she was 17) to 1962, when Uncle Peck first touched her intimately. Blending various drama devices into a glimmering impression, Vogel studies the family dynamics that led Li’l Bit and Peck to their obviously fond but wrongful relationship.
The many shifting moods of this disturbing romance are smoothly guided by director Kate Whoriskey upon a mildly surreal green and blue landscape setting by Derek McLane of hills and street lamps. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting plus the original music and soundscape created by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen contribute much to the production’s luminous quality.
Reaser’s curiously blank performance perhaps is meant to suggest the mask that Li’l Bit assumes to hide her emotional damage, but she lacks appeal. On the other hand, Butz ingratiatingly portrays Peck with such warmth and gentlemanly ease that the story seems to be more about the uncle than the niece. Kevin Cahoon, Marnie Schulenburg and Jennifer Regan (who is particularly funny getting sloshed in a solo turn relating how ladies should drink) are lively company as various relatives and contemporaries.
While the production does not take “How I Learned to Drive” to its furthest emotional level, the play remains a masterly piece of modern stagecraft.
“How I Learned to Drive” continues through March 11 at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., New York. Call (212) 246-4422 or visit www.2st.com.