Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE LYING LESSON (Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on March 13, 2013

in Theater-New York

A LESSON IN CHARACTERIZATION

Carol Kane’s magnetic performance turns Craig Lucas’s dramatically thin comic thriller The Lying Lesson into compelling entertainment. Ms. Kane plays Bette Davis (the movie star, in her November years), who arrives incognito to an empty house in Maine that she is the process of purchasing, a couple of days prior to the closing. There she encounters Minnie (Mickey Sumner), a young woman apparently oblivious to the actress’s true identity, who insinuates herself as the newcomer’s girl Friday.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of THE LYING LESSON

The stakes are trivial in The Lying Lesson and the plot feels like a formality, a shaky, makeshift vessel constructed merely to contain the real substance of the play, which is Bette Davis. Her character is where Mr. Lucas’s script shows its strength. He paints Davis a robust, truthful personage, giving her exciting monologues, delightful retorts, and amusing one-liners. Ms. Kane executes these with precision and nuance, admirably never crossing into the fatal realm of sentimentality or caricature.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of THE LYING LESSON

Although Davis’s interactions with Minnie are satisfying mostly because they allow the eccentric movie icon to do her thing, she is drawn with some lovely shades, which Ms. Sumner captures quite nicely. Unfortunately, rather than exploring her character, in what appears to be a misguided attempt at suspense, Mr. Lucas chooses to keep facts about the young woman secret from us until deep into the second act (facts which are both obvious and inconsequential). As a result, when the truth about Minnie is finally revealed, aspects of her character feel unbelievable.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of THE LYING LESSON

Pam Mackinnon’s direction, though unable to overcome the script’s shortcomings, is generally solid. She does make two distracting choices however: The first ten or fifteen minutes of the show are paced needlessly slowly. The goal here seems to be to establish characters, space, and suspense. Unfortunately, not enough happens to warrant the time that she takes. Ms. Mackinnon’s other questionable yet similar decision is to have the stage hands perform their duties very slowly and methodically when they appear during scene changes. This incorporates them into the show and seems to have been done for the purpose of sustaining a mood, but their movements look tense, artificial and contrived.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of THE LYING LESSON

Whatever flaws there are, they are relatively minor in the context of what the show is trying to accomplish. The goal here is to conjure up a legendary, charismatic old movie star, known for her peculiar manner, intelligence and wit, and at this it succeeds. For fans of Carol Kane and, one would venture to guess, Bette Davis, The Lying Lesson should be a very enjoyable outing.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of THE LYING LESSON

photos by Kevin Thomas Garcia

The Lying Lesson
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater
scheduled to end on March 21, 2013
for tickets, call (212) 691-5919 or visit http://atlantictheater.org/
Scenic Designer: Neil Patel, Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi, Lighting Designer: Russell H. Champa, Original Music and Sound Designer: Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht)

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