Tainted love

DTC's powerful How I Learned to Drive offers a crash course in taboo relationships

If some actors, directors, and designers from Dallas Theater Center and the Dallas theater scene didn't already want to restrain me atop a stone temple and yank my beating heart out like one of those S.R.O. Aztec sacrifice rituals, they will now: I'm writing a review of a preview performance. The first preview performance. It's not my fault; there were scheduling conflicts too involved to get into here. Just use anesthetic before you cut; I was once like you.

Right before a crowded house sat down to watch DTC's first public run-through of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, director Jonathan Moscone warned folks that the actors might need to stop. That didn't happen, thank God. But the itch from the invisible hairshirt of guilt I donned to see this preview irritated somewhat less--thanks to the analgesic of paying for my own ticket. Sixteen bucks. And that was the cheapest you could purchase for a preview performance. I considered this my own personal sacrifice for seeing a preview, but if the show had stopped or proven to be terribly inconsistent, and I didn't know that the word "preview" meant "this show might stop or be terribly inconsistent," I would've been ready to perform a little unlicensed surgery myself.

As it turns out, my guilt was further assuaged by the sterling debut try-out given by the cast and the tech crew. By the time you read this, How I Learned to Drive will have just officially opened. Whatever tweaks director Moscone thinks the show may need will have surely been fixed, but quite frankly, most of the audience seemed to respond as if it were opening night. The show alternated between wide laughter from ticket-buyers and periods of silence that were tense and stretched thin, the kind where people seem to be barely breathing because they're so busy trying to process unusual takes on emotional subjects. And How I Learned to Drive is nothing if not unusual: a heavily comic play about the protracted romance between a female adolescent and her charming uncle. And I don't use the word "romance" recklessly here: Vogel's emotionally microscopic script posits the near-revolutionary notion that you can be nurtured and used at the same time.

In DTC's production, How I Learned to Drive forces us to examine how we really feel in the harsh headlights of a car: Scenic designer Narelle Sissons and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind have placed an automobile squarely over the heads of the actors, as though all are about to be run down if they stand in the wrong place for too long.

The play opens with the late-night, parked-car exchange between a young woman nicknamed Li'l Bit (Terri Lamm) and an older man known as Uncle Peck (Terry Beaver). He wants to touch her breasts, but won't force himself on her; she is uncertain, but clearly interested in his proposition. We quickly discover that they are niece and uncle, of course: He's a World War II veteran who falls off and then climbs back on the drinking wagon, but confidently straddles the pure, ingratiating ride through life that his South Carolina gentleman's accent takes him on. She's the awkward, inquisitive child who's probably too smart for the crude, antagonistic family who doesn't want to see her graduate to better things. Mom (Tara Gibson) is a tight-skirt-wearing survivor of the sexual wars, who simultaneously tells her daughter that sex is pleasurable and that men are not to be trusted. Grandma (Charlotte Akin) is rather more outspoken about sex than your average grandmother, but it's mostly negative: She insists "men are bulls," refuses to believe that such a thing as an orgasm exists, and wants to terrify her granddaughter with how painful the whole act is so the girl will stay clean until she marries. Grandpa (Jeremy Schwartz) hobbles on a walker but still manages, appropriately, to bellow like a bull at all these female machinations: We learn he is well endowed and has been nicknamed appropriately. This family has the habit of nicknaming many of its members by their genitalia, including Uncle Peck and Li'l Bit.

In this sexualized atmosphere, these two are attracted to and repelled from each other like electrically charged ions. Vogel cannily saves the most outrageous, undeniably criminal moment for the final scene; what unfolds beforehand is a tumultuous exchange in which Li'l Bit, who's been enthusiastically but never threateningly pursued by Uncle Peck, finds that she both loves and desires him, perhaps because he is one of the few people who has encouraged her mind.

A word about the incest angle that has been played up so much in reviews and interviews: The uncle is related to the niece only by marriage, so their troubled fumblings are incestuous legally, not genetically. You may consider this a minor point, but fathom the whole of Vogel's episodic script as it hops back and forth between the '60s and '70s, and you'll probably realize that the pathology displayed here is pedophilia. And even this crime is diluted by Vogel's fearless representation of a perpetrator who so sincerely loves (or so he thinks) a child he seduces that his affections continue even when she comes of legal age.

Forget the playwright's confused, overrated AIDS parable The Baltimore Waltz, recently presented in Dallas by Kitchen Dog Theater. This is the kind of right-up-to-the-bone scalpel work that she performed in Desdemona...A Play About a Handkerchief, produced a while back by 11th Street Theatre Project. In that play, Vogel turned Othello's doomed, saintly young wife into a sexually avaricious woman who subs for a prostitute friend when the opportunity arises. Among other things, she asks us to investigate our own methods of distributing approval and disapproval: How would such knowledge of an underwritten Shakespearean character affect our reaction to her brutal murder?

For the Dallas production of How I Learned to Drive, DTC once again liberally mixes area artists with out-of-towners, and I'd wager you'd be hard-pressed, if you didn't read the program, to tell the difference as far as quality of performance. The supporting performers (referred to in the script as "The Greek Choruses") are really acting in a parallel story to the poignant relationship of Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck. They provide almost all of the comic desperation, the roiling sea of absurdity from which the niece must escape as surely as the tossed waters of her infatuation-repulsion with Uncle Peck.

Charlotte Akin, Tara Gibson, and Jeremy Schwartz all play multiple characters who panel the mosaic of Li'l Bit's childhood, adolescence, and adulthood: At the preview, they distinguished these sometimes grotesque characters smartly and vividly and sometimes hilariously. Terry Beaver is the Tony nominee from New York's production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo; he is slyly endearing from the word go, and his predatory instincts are rooted in a desperation that comes from his "fire in the heart." Terri Lam is the narrator of this haunted, tangled memory play. Like Vogel's script, the graceful Lamm plays Li'l Bit as confused in the best and most edifying sense--striving to reconcile love and hate, sorrow and celebration. It's a trial that the exploited and the unexploited alike can recognize.

How I Learned to Drive runs through November 15. Call (214) 522-TIXX.

Banter
Writer-director-designer-actor-Dallasite-who-actually-doesn't-own-a-car Bruce Coleman makes two lofty claims for this "Banter": "I made you like musicals" is the first (I did enjoy two Theatre Three shows: Once On This Island, which Coleman directed, and Into the Woods, whose costumes he designed, but I'm still wary of the genre). The second is "I have become the king of the musical revue." He has extensive proof for that.

"The first show I ever directed was a revue of the music of Harry Chapin for Theatre Three," Coleman says. "Since then I've done revues for Irving Berlin, Jacques Brel, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. I knew I wanted to do a Cole Porter show ever since Artie Olaisen (from the Dallas Children's Theater) gave me a book about Cole Porter and Noel Coward called Genius and Lust. The premise of that book was that the genius of these two men was heavily inspired by their sexuality. He showed how different songs they wrote were influenced by romantic and sexual things that happened in their lives at the time they were writing them."

Coleman evolved this idea into Night and Day, New Theatre Company's Cole Porter revue. Using the songwriter's wondrous tunes and writing a book for the show that encompasses the major events of Porter's life, the director has arranged the show in almost tutorial fashion. The first act recounts the trials and victories of the songwriter "with a few songs for commentary," and the second act is "pure vaudeville."

"The idea is, the first act will introduce a new way to look at the second act, the songs," Coleman says. "We want people to think of the songs in the context of Porter's life."

It all transpires in the fictional Chateau Cigne Noir, a famous Parisian brothel where Porter (Steve Lovett) cavorts with Madame (Susan Reed) and her coterie of hustlers and gigolos. Coleman is collaborating with arranger Scott Ekhardt to bend familiar tunes into new shapes that fit his purposes. In addition, he's using some less frequently performed Porter songs ("I Want to Be Raided By You") and, when possible, the "party lyrics" rather than the "mass consumption" ones. (When's the last time you heard Ella Fitzgerald singing, "You're the arms of Venus / You're King Kong's penis / You're self-abuse"?)

Coleman says there's no way he could write this show without making fun of a famous Cole Porter bio-film that bears the same name as his show--the notorious Cary Grant vehicle in which Porter is portrayed as a sly dog with the chorus girls.

"The rain falling, Cary Grant in a foxhole in the middle of a world war, pining for Alexis Smith and writing Night and Day," Coleman laughs. "I don't think so. Monty Woolley was Porter's best friend, and the two of them would work the docks at night for rough trade. Monty Woolley played himself in the film as a real womanizer. Don't you know they were just screaming with laughter between takes?"

Night and Day opens October 28 and runs through November 14. Call (214) 871-3300.

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