How I Learned About Meta-theater: A Short Play About A Play
Notes On a New York Production
By Rod Schecter
Praised as “important theater” by critic Martin Denton, director Terry Schreiber has recently staged a new production of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama How I Learned to Drive, a Lolita-inspired story about the murky liaisons between a sexual predator and the object of his desire. How I Learned Drive traces the memories of a thirty-something woman looking back her relationship with the uncle who molested her when she was a child. The play yokes together pubescent sexual awakening and sexual depravity in a startling tale that abandons black and white judgments for more complex insights into the cultural taboos so prevalent in our society. With renewed interest in the subject taking form even in mainstream programs like HBO’s Big Love, which delves into the pedophiliac tendencies in the Fundamentalist Mormon community’s practice of taking child brides and pederasty. In an interview conducted by this author with the playwright, Vogel comments on the intense complexity and ethical ambiguity of How I Learned to Drive, “…these situations (which occur very frequently) are more complex than simple feel-good indignation can portray,” says Vogel. “When we react with a knee-jerk indignation, we don't stop to look at something in all its complexity, and understand it. I think such seduction is a gray, rather than a black and white moral area.”
How I Learned to Drive opened on March 2nd was performed in the intimate setting of Terry Schreiber’s self-named Chelsea studio. The production resonated with the potent energy of the powerhouse playwright while adding a few new vibrations to the critically acclaimed drama. Working with only a stripped-down set, consisting of a table, a few chairs, and a minimum of props, leads Erika Sheffer (Li’l Bit) and Jess Draper (Uncle Peck) were forced into a sparse yet sparkling performance that stressed craft over elaborate stage design to evoke its fictional world.
The Reviewer climbs twenty floors in a slow-moving elevator, escaping into the intimate confines of an acting school and performance space. Posters of upcoming performances and framed photographs of famous actors adorn the walls. The sounds of vocal exercises emanate from behind closed doorways as aspiring actors cut their teeth on the great words of human drama. A tall publicist in a pinstriped suit greets him with a press packet. The reviewer runs his fingers over the glossy matte surface of the black folder and then rubs the thumbprints from the packet as not to disturb the sheen. He receives his press pass next, smiling nervously like a curious teenager as he takes his seat in the small studio space that has been home to countless first-rate performances. The stage lights open and the first monologue begins with a soft yet confident tenor. As protagonist Li’l Bit lets us in on her “secret,” a voice in his head announces:
Know Your Art Form: A play is an entirely different thing than a novel or even a film and relies on an implicit agreement between audience and ensemble to come alive.
Male Greek Chorus
(As Reviewer) In our society it’s hard not to be inundated by film, television, and print media. It’s easy to forget that there are more intimate performances to remind us that people aren’t made of pixels, but actual flesh and blood. Terry Schreiber Studio’s production of How I Learned To Drive was one of those performances, bringing together a talented ensemble that catapults us, without conveniences like the pause and rewind button, into a such personal collaboration with Vogel’s potent words—words that contain an extraordinary playfulness in light of subject matter that most of us shy away from—and words that allow us a crystal clear view of life as it might actually exist, that is, with all it’s ambiguities and complications.
This comes across beautifully, as Vogel’s characters possess an astonishing self-awareness subtle enough to catapult them into the literary icons on which they are loosely based—if only because they are able to articulate the awkward push and pull, the attraction and repulsion, inherent in a love affair of this kind—a love affair that is as unnatural as it feels calculated from the moment Uncle Peck holds the newborn L’il Bit in his “outstretched hand.”
The idea that Peck’s hunt to satisfy his own urges may have begun even then, only heightens the tension we see between the various incarnations of Li’l Bit at various points in her development and the tragically flawed Peck who drips as much southern charm as he does malefic intention. Just like the reader is engaged by the hypnotic and often charming voice of Humbert Humbert in the Nabakov novel, the audience, and Li’l Bit, cannot help but be drawn to Vogel’s cunning southern gentlemen.
“I am a huge fan of Nabokov,” Vogel says. “I love his characters, Lo and Humbert....and I think I was interested in seeing if such complexity could be achieved— the balancing act of empathy—in theatre, rather than a novel and whether I as a woman author could achieve the balance.”
While Vogel excels at invoking the subtle nuances of Peck’s beastly urges, she does an equally masterful job of keeping Peck’s Monster at bay—or at least hiding it’s teeth—in the sense that his monstrous actions seem to be somewhat divorced from his soft spoken and affable personality. The fact that this makes him even more sinister becomes the crux of the dance between the two main characters and the “family that let it happen.” Borrowing the ancient convention of the Greek chorus Vogel explains “it allows actors to transform into entire villages; and the chorus are our representatives on stage.” The fact that the Greeks were a society where pedophilia had an accepted role in society and a starkly different social function and perception then it does today seems to imply a deeper meaning to the classical device that uses a unified, social voice to add breadth to its story.
And thus we become entrenched in the account that pits the emotional wiles of an intellectually gifted young woman with a “fire in her head,’ against the contemplative predator with the “fire in his heart,” who is as much a father to her as he is a self-imposed love interest. Whether or not Peck and Li’l bit are actually “star crossed lovers,” as Terry Schreiber assessed in his comments on the play, is less relevant than the fact that the characters are truly entangled in a relationship that can never possibly flourish. However, unlike Shakespeare’s famous, ill-fated couple, Vogel’s protagonists are not equals and while Uncle Peck may be a victim of his own urges (urges that ultimately force him into a pariah-like existence). This is a small consolation for the true victim in this story, a bright, fatherless girl whose need for patriarchal love is manipulated into something as emotionally convoluted as it is sexually charged. And this discordant energy only builds in intensity, acting as the foundation for a story that progresses emotionally rather than chronologically, until Li’l Bit’s “secret” is finally told in a powerful moment that reveals the broken child still buried within her, despite her sarcasm and, at times, morose refinement. In other words, Vogel’s scenes seem to build in terms of emotional importance using dynamism instead of time as the body to hold together the life that swirls and swells within it.
What we are left with is a collage of moments that mark the days of two ruined lives: Peck’s, to drink and his irrepressible urges, and Li’l Bit’s, whose potential is destroyed (she loses her scholarship to a “fancy” university only to drive the back roads of Maryland drunk and alone), ultimately displaying her own pedophiliac tendencies when she gives in to the seduction of a boyish suitor, also leaving us to ponder who first turned Uncle Peck into the monster in the first place.
Whether or not Peck’s behavior is learned or inherited is beside the point, however, especially considering the almost organic way their affair began. Like most relationships, interest develops into something more complex, something bigger than the sum of its parts—a Gesalt. But instead of prospering, this relationship develops into something too beastly to survive—into a relationship that, with its own unique energy, nicely mirrors the Nabakov masterwork that inspired Vogel in the first place without creating something directly allegorical in structure.
So the idea that the structure is comprised of driving lessons between the older Peck and the naïve Li’l bit, works especially well in achieving its own dramatic identity—especially because of the parental energy it also conjures in the minds of those of us who learned the rules of the road from our parents at a time when first times didn’t always refer to the sexual and emotional urges that are “driving” both of our protagonists to some extent. “I wanted to think how to structure time so that our moral judgment would be more suspended,” Vogel says. “And that we would experience the play the way we process memory....and in that way, I am more indebted to Pinter's Betrayal as a dramatic model for the plot, than Lolita itself. Plays need organizing principles in a way novels do not—again, this is how one creates a journey on stage, and hence the driving lessons.”
Always look to the greats for true inspiration.
Look at this tangle of thorns.
The Reviewer crosses his legs in his seat and places his hand on his chin. His closeness to the performers makes him feel like part of the show, and he starts to develop a certain affection for the small ensemble that has captured his attention for over an hour without him even noticing. On the stage, an actor fiddles with a tripod as an actress, deftly exhibiting an adolescent’s pride and naivety, poses for sexy pinups. The reviewer feels a sense of closeness to the material that he didn’t feel on the page when a voice in his head announces:
Divorcing Play From Performance: When seeing a live performance it is important to remember the actors are not made of pixels or celluloid and have only one chance to get it right.
Male Greek Chorus
(As Reviewer): Schreiber’s production of How I Learned To Drive is merely indicative of the reputation he has worked hard to earn in his years on the NY Theater circuit. His production was succeeded in delivering emotional performances from Jess Draper as Peck and the Female Greek Chorus played by Samantha J. Phillips who delivered Peck’s wife—Aunt Mary’s—lament in a style that was both convincing and heart breaking. However while Aunt Mary’s forgiveness of her husband in light of his other more redeeming qualities softened the audience some, it was Draper’s fluid and emotive presence that brought home the complexity of Vogel’s words with more than a modicum of tact and grace. Draper readily admits the role caused him some internal conflict, a fact that is clearly evident in a performance that delivers the tortured, yet likeable, Peck in all his perverse complexity.
Sheffer, too, did a good job of making Li’l Bit believable in every stage of her development, shifting age and temperament almost seamlessly in an impressive display of craftsmanship. While at times her monologues came off as unnecessarily dreamy, she managed to pull the performance together with a delivery that was at once vulnerable and resilient, making any flaws less road blocks than speed bumps in a parking lot on your first driving lesson. (The reviewer winks and hits Control+S to save)
Production Notes On Controversy
How I Learned To Drive has been applauded for tackling controversy and creating for itself a prominent place in the New York theater community. A hard feat, in light of the censorship controversy surrounding the New York Theater Workshop’s (NYTW) cancellation of My Name Is Rachel Corrie—a topic about which Vogel herself has been rather vocal. “It's been hard for a while to get American plays done by rising American writers at NYTW,” says Vogel in her interview with me. “We've been censoring American playwrights for some time under the name of new play development for at least a decade.’’
“So it's little surprise about Rachel Corrie....NYTW has been doing the same thing to Americans for a while; not only have we been importing our political plays from Great Britain and Ireland and South Africa for some time (writers such as David Hare and Athol Fugard) rather than producing our own political plays, now it seems we need to import our political outrage against censorship.”
While not overtly political, How I Learned To Drive, is an ambitious production that has some how managed to stay relevant in the wake of newer American playwrights who have obviously been marginalized. Luckily, plays like How I Learned to Drive are still being performed in the New York Theater by companies like the Terry Schreiber Studio, keeping innovative theater and its champions like Paula Vogel in the limelight to speak out against these inequities.
For more information on the performance go to howilearnedtodrive.com and be sure to check out what’s new from the acclaimed theater group at www.t-s-s.org.