It’s always a pleasure to experience a well-written, expertly staged and sensitively acted play that is both provocative and off the beaten path. The current Off-Broadway revival of How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 critical blockbuster about incest, child abuse and destructive sexual empowerment, is such a play. Its excellent, limited run at Second Stage on West 43rd Street (through March 11, but don’t be surprised if packed houses and good reviews lead to an extension) is a must-see, and with the marvelous two-time Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz taking a break from musicals to portray the tragic role of a pedophile with an oily charm that makes him understandable if not entirely forgivable, missing such an opportunity is out of the question.
I’m not sure I understand why this slight, 90-minute, one-act play won the Pulitzer Prize in a year that also produced the unforgettable musical sensation Side Show and the savage Irish drama The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but it does hold up well in retrospect. The story spans some 30 years in the life of a girl known only by her family nickname, Li’l Bit, as she looks back on her sexually charged relationship with a favorite married uncle called Uncle Peck, who lavished her with affection from ages 11 to 18. Ms. Vogel writes on cruise control as she soft pedals her way through the lives of two disturbed people in the rural farmland and back roads of suburban Maryland. Looking back to the summer she was 17 and taking driving lessons from a man old enough to be her father, Li’l Bit inspires suspicion about her own sexual response to the hand inching its way under her skirt and into her panties. Dirt, agriculture and the smell of animals and hay under a full moon, and you see why Uncle Peck was intoxicated. Thanks to Mr. Butz’s three-dimensional performance, his character’s dysfunctional side is perfectly balanced with the “normal” side of his frustrated personality. He can unhook the buttons on her blouse with one hand and beg to kiss her “celestial orbs” at the same time, instructing her to keep her own hands firmly on the steering wheel. At 17, her breasts are so big her family jokes about writing Dolly Parton for some of her hand-me-down bras. But nobody’s fascination with them excites her as much as her favorite uncle, a former Marine who was stationed in the Pacific, as he keeps reassuring her “nothing’s gonna happen ’til you want it to” and “I’m a patient man—I’ve been waiting a long time.” There’s an ease to the writing, and Mr. Butz is so moving in depicting Uncle Peck’s balking inhibition that you can’t help but feel sympathy for him. This is not the way it’s supposed to play out in the world of pedophilia, but Ms. Vogel is careful to wisely refrain from passing moral judgment. Uncle Peck is a predator who makes you care because Ms. Vogel makes you care, and the power of the writing is that you care without feeling guilty. At the least of it, the girl’s emerging sexuality and confused sense of identity, fueled by her uncle’s sadness and desperation to love, make you wonder who is doing what to whom. The driving lessons, while reciting passages from driver’s instruction manuals, become an insidious metaphor for sexual seduction.
He’s such a sweet man the neighbors “borrow” him to help out—shoveling snow, jump-starting their dead car batteries. His sweetness shows in one scene in which he tries to teach a nephew how to catch a pompano, then throws it back when the boy feels sorry for the fish. He’s troubled, but the girl is a master of manipulation, too. As played by the gifted and lovely Elizabeth Reaser (so rounded and memorable as the pregnant older sister in the film The Family Stone), Li’l Bit has vulnerability, but it is clear she is not entirely innocent. She’s more like Nabokov’s Lolita—clearly cognizant of her power and more in charge of her fate than you suspect—and Mr. Butz finds a sweaty humor in the role of a pathetic older man with uncontrollable urges, giving Uncle Peck a sympathetic dimension, doing his best to avoid moustache-twirling lecherousness. The play is not a psychological mystery about what has already gone wrong in his life—it’s a tense and artfully restrained memory piece about the consequences of emotional scar tissue.
The structure of How I Learned to Drive takes dramatic detours into past, present and future tenses as Ms. Vogel makes it clear that both Uncle Peck and the object of his carnal passion made unpredictable choices. This juxtaposition of vignettes is clearly guided by Kate Whoriskey’s firm, sparse direction. A lot of things go unresolved, making the salient dramatic point that in life, human behavior is rarely fair and never easily pigeonholed. Like good theater, if you ask me.