Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Off-Broadway: How I Learned to Drive, Hurt Village, The Broken Heart

How I Learned to Drive
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Elizabeth Reaser, Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan, Marnie Schulenburg
Written by Paula Vogel; directed by Kate Whoriskey
Previews began January 24, 2012; opened February 11; closes March 11
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, which debuted off-Broadway in 1997, was hailed by many (including winning the Pulitzer prize) as an insightful comic exploration of pedophilia, incest and manipulation. But now, after seeing its first revival, I’m sorry to say that the original was propped up by two magisterial performances: Mary Louise Parker as L’il Bit and David Morse as her Uncle Peck.

Kate Whoriskey’s handsome new staging (on Derek McLane’s smart but spare set) stars Elizabeth Reaser as L’il Bit and Norbert Leo Butz as Peck, both impressive but not transcending the material as Parker and Morse did. The result is that the play now seems vulgar and quite crude, with its “driving” metaphor for sexual awakening dealt with blatantly through the chorus (an actor and actress who also double as L’il Bit’s grandparents and others), which speaks driving terms like “neutral,“ “first gear” or “reverse” to ensure everyone gets it.

For a play that deals with the thin lines separating controller and controlled, How I Learned to Drive has surprisingly little persuasive psychology or character development, with coarseness substituting for insight or illumination. L’il Bit’s very nickname, like her uncle’s, has blatant sexual connotations that allude to the big-busted teen she became.

Narrating as an adult with the benefit of hindsight, L’il Bit lays out her convoluted relationship with Peck, an alcoholic army veteran from the South who is the ultimate outsider in her family: his own wife, L’il Bit’s Aunt Mary, admits to his “problems” but excuses him by accusing her niece of wielding power over her weak husband.

Vogel shows both L’il Bit and Peck as damaged characters: there’s scene of an adult L’il Bit, now a teacher, taking a pimply-faced student to bed (like uncle, like niece?), while Peck is seen telling a young nephew--after teaching him to fish--that they can spend some quiet time in a secret tree house, but no one can know about it. Too bad such scenes never feel authentic; instead of shedding light, they seem shoehorned in.

By allowing L’il Bit to explain away her uncle’s molestation (which begins when she’s 11 years old) and winkingly thank him for teaching her to drive--the single moment of exhilaration she feels--Vogel cheapens her own premise. The playwright further indulges herself in such cheap laughs as L’il Bit’s mother explaining how a woman should drink while on a date or L’il Bit, her mom and grandmother discussing sex on two separate occasions, with her grandfather popping in for more lowbrow humor. Despite its pedigree and Pulitzer, Paula Vogel’s play never matures.

Hurt Village
Starring Marsha Stephanie Blake, Amari Cheatom, Nicholas Christopher, Corey Hawkins, Ron Cephas Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Tonya Pinkins, Saycon Sengbloh
Written by Katori Hall; directed by Patricia McGregor
Previews began February 7, 2012; opened February 27; closes March 18
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Unlike The Mountaintop, her confused fantasia about Martin Luther King, Katori Hall’s Hurt Village is a relatively straightforward screed against an uncaring “them” (faceless government bureaucracy, epitomized by the inept Bush administration) that allows poor neighborhoods to fester until there is no hope for young or old.

The title refers to a slum area of Memphis, Hall’s hometown, which is falling apart at the seams as drug deals, assaults and shootings become everyday occurrences; meanwhile, developers are watching and waiting to raze the entire place after families are pushed out of their homes to make way for “better” housing and businesses.

The family Hall shows comprises Big Mama, who works in a local VA hospital cleaning up after sick vets; her grandson, Buggy, just returned from 10 years in the armed forces, the last few in Iraq; his former girlfriend, Crank, who hopes to become a hairdresser; and Cookie, Buggy and Crank’s daughter, a precocious, preternaturally wise teen.

Despite difficulties that feel less organic than piled-on--Buggy’s post-combat nightmares, Crank’s heroin problems, Big Mama being refused for aid because she made 387 dollars over the limit, and outside forces like drug dealers--Hall’s family perseveres. The first act--which opens with Cookie’s rousingly defiant rap number--unsparingly depicts this world: the outpouring of profanity (more ‘N’ and ‘F’ words are heard than ever) is justified by the context. The second act, straitjacketed by a standard melodramatic drug deal gone bad, merely treads water.

But under Patricia McGregor’s finely-tuned direction, a magnificent cast of nine breathes ferocious life into Hall’s people, particularly Joaquina Kalukango as Cookie and Tonya Pinkins as Big Mama. Thanks to them, Hurt Village is a place worth visiting.

The Broken Heart
Starring Bianca Amato, Annika Boras, Jacob Fishel, Saxon Palmer
Written by John Ford; directed by Selina Cartmell
Previews began February 4, 2012; opened February 10; closes March 4
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

John Ford, a near-contemporary of Shakespeare, is best known for ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a bawdy incest tragedy that’s occasionally revived (it comes to BAM in March). Ford’s other plays are more obscure, including The Broken Heart, an ancient Sparta-set tragedy that receives its off-Broadway premiere with a dutiful, uninspired staging by Selina Cartmell.

Incest is wrongly charged in The Broken Heart by a jealous husband barging in on his wife, embracing her twin brother; otherwise, the plot follows these and other characters’ relationships and their inevitably fatal consequences. Mixed in are songs, blank verse and a finale in which the characters--including those killed off--return to recite the moral.

The nearly three-hour The Broken Heart is a long slog rarely leavened by humor whose ancient setting and declamatory dialogue puts its characters at a further remove. Cartmell, while inventively moving her performers around the Duke’s small stage, is let down by Annie-B Parson’s ill-fitting choreographed movements, which are more distracting than distinctive. Marcus Doshi’s ethereal lighting, Susan Hilferty’s monochrome costumes and Antje Ellerman’s suggestive scenery are more on the mark.

Too bad that most of the actors are hampered by their earnestness: the exceptions are Annika Boras, who brings sensitivity and intelligence--and a superbly-wrought mad scene--to Penthea, while Bianca Amato is a sympathetic Princess Calantha, owner of the title heart.

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