Broadway Review: HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE (Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on May 24, 2022

in Theater-New York


Some plays take time to come into their own but they’re well worth a wait. Twenty-five years after its Off-Broadway debut, Paula Vogel’s seminal wonder How I Learned to Drive is only now reaching full impact. That’s thanks, of course, to the consciousness-raising of #MeToo, among other seismic changes in the body politic. But mostly, it’s due to this Broadway premiere with most of the original cast intact that softly and quietly grips us to the core.

Alyssa May Gold (Teenage Greek Chorus), David Morse (Peck), Mary-Louise 
Parker (Li’l Bit), Johanna Day (Female Greek Chorus), and Chris Myers (Male Greek Chorus)

The author of The Baltimore Waltz and The Long Christmas Ride Home details a protracted sex crime in a broken family. For 100 minutes we’re forced to face an elaborate violation of innocence by an ostensibly trustworthy relative, a soul-shrinking situation that’s astounding in its portrayal of the breach of a child’s faith in adults. We sit helpless watching this selfish, duplicitous, nice-guy-next-door wondering how much terrible truth a one-act can possibly present. Explicit, earnest, and earthy, this searing testament is presented by the victim, who we surmise in telling her story will still go through life shouldering the atrocities of the past. Her confession, powerfully revived in Mark Brokaw’s fluid, sympathetic staging for Manhattan Theatre Club, is told through car metaphors of cruising, driving, and stripping gears.

David Morse (Peck) and Mary-Louise Parker (Li’l Bit)

Throughout this twisted coming of age, Li’l Bit (a stunningly unpretentious Mary-Louise Parker) looks back on decades of abuse, stuck in a white-trash clan that all but set her up for the kill. From the start this Maryland girl is mired in too much ignorance to consider her body a plaything for the wrong guys — no sex talks from an emotionally M.I.A. mom or her lascivious and feuding grandparents. Bouncy breasts, she discovers, are meant to be jiggled for fun and popularity. Vomiting after a bad encounter restores purity. Boys will be boys but, when a man gets out of hand, he requires either the broom or the rolling pin. Her adolescent confusion is a cry for harm more than help. L’il Bit (her name appropriately anatomical) is all but ambushed by her puberty.

And one adult.

Mary-Louise Parker (Li’l Bit), Johanna Day (Female Greek Chorus),
and Alyssa May Gold (Teenage Greek Chorus)

Enabling and corrupting L’il Bit is Peck (David Morse), a false father figure and uncle by marriage, yoked to a wife (the gobsmacking wonder Johanna Day) who will stand by her man in the worst way (including blaming his victim). Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and crowning accomplishment strews the narrative like leaves blowing through memory, but with a composure that makes the subject all the more horrifying. Surprisingly humorous and astute, the script makes us incapable of hating this predator, who also preys on a male cousin of L’il Bit on a fishing trip. It is Morse’s ridiculously likeable performance and talent that made us feel compassion towards his ultimately monstrous character.

Johanna Day (Female Greek Chorus), Mary-Louise Parker (Li’l Bit),
Alyssa May Gold (Teenage Greek Chorus), and Chris Myers (Male Greek Chorus)

It’s a crash course in coping with what should never be endured: Vogel conveys it with a you-are-there immediacy and resilience that turns sheer survival into a kind of art. She even injects an improbable but load-lifting infusion of gallows humor, all but recreating Carol Burnett’s toxically dysfunctional wife Eunice and her Dixie doodle family from hell. In these roles, supporting actors Alyssa May Gold — who I found not strong enough to believably transform into an older, formidable woman — and especially Chris Myers — who was not believable as the racist, ignorant grandfather — didn’t really impress as members of that backwoods clan.

OK, the play isn’t perfect: there are a few endings and it works too hard to compare driving to fornication (although you will see just why this is so). But, simply as an object lesson, few plays are so non-negotiably valuable, particularly for young audiences I should think. Yet at the talkback after the show, the house was full of adults with a potpourri of questions.

David Morse (Peck) and Mary-Louise Parker (Li’l Bit)

Telling one tough tale truly, I surmise that Vogel could not have guessed in 1997 how vital this literally driving drama would prove to be today. Manhattan Theatre Club has done us proud by restoring its gut-wrenching horrors as well as its healing.

David Morse (Peck) and Johanna Day (Female Greek Chorus)

photos © Jeremy Daniel (2022)

How I Learned to Drive
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
ends on May 24, 2022 EXTENDED TO June 12, 2022
for tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit Telecharge

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