06 April 2013

'The Lying Lesson'

I really had no idea what I’d be seeing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater on 20th Street, Chelsea, when I walked over on Friday evening, 29 March, to see Craig Lucas’s The Lying Lesson.  That’s rare for me—to be so in the dark about a play I was attending.  I’d read Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review of the world première on 14 March, but I only came away with the knowledge that the play was about Bette Davis and that the reviewer didn’t think much of it.  I used to say that I generally agree with Isherwood’s assessments, but lately that hasn’t been so, so I couldn’t even go into this with a feeling that I might have the same reaction he did.  In fact, I anticipated having an opposite response to The Lying Lesson since I’d differed with the review-writer’s opinions on a string of recent productions, if not with his overall judgment (see my reports on Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, 3 January, or David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad, 17 March), then with the rationale for it (Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders, 27 March).

Well, guess what.  I’m now back on Team Isherwood again, at least for this play.  Even when we fundamentally agreed, I might find that the Timesman was kinder about some fault than I was or harsher in judging a misstep, though we often saw the same ones.  That’s what happened in the case of The Lying Lesson.  (Doesn’t that sound just like an episode of the old Perry Mason TV series?  “The Case of the Lying Lesson”!  Sorry.  Took a little side trip.  I’m back now.)  Anyway, here’s the poop on Lucas’s play and the ATC production, directed by Pam MacKinnon.

The Lying Lesson, which opened on 13 March after starting previews on 6 February, is set in 1981 in a small town in Maine where Bette Davis, using her birth name Ruth Elizabeth (Davis), is buying an old house.  She once lived in the town and the house belongs to a man she once loved when they were youngsters.  She arrives during a violent thunderstorm and finds the house empty—until, that is, someone creeps through a window in the dark (the power having gone out after one especially big thunderclap).  “Ruth” grabs a carving knife and threatens the intruder (“I will sever your carotid artery!”), who turns out to be a young woman who’s been caring for the property while the owners prepare it for sale.  At first, Minnie Bodine says she doesn’t have any idea who Ruth is (which seems to miff Davis a little, even though she keeps insisting that no one should know her “true identity” until after the closing on the house).  But that, like much else in The Lying Lesson, proves to be less than the complete truth.  (Those, I venture to guess, are the lies from which Lucas intends the characters and us to take the lessons of the title.  But I can’t actually prove it, as you’ll hear.)

What follows on stage is a two-hour, two-act two-hander (d’you follow that?) that is neither a celebrity exposé nor a take on the Grand Guignol films Davis was relegated to making (think What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, released in 1962), though there are suggestions that both or either could break out at any moment.  I was put in mind of another play about long-ago celebs that intended to use events around their lives to make some universal point, Austin Pendleton's Orson’s Shadow, staged in New York City in 2005.  In both plays, little tidbits of bio and theater or movie lore are dropped as the characters go about some business—in Orson’s Shadow, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier are rehearsing the 1960 London début of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros—which forms a backdrop-cum-matrix for the real drama in the play.  (For the record, I didn’t like Orson’s Shadow very much, either.)  The Lying Lesson, which closed on 31 March, was billed as a comedy-thriller, but I found the laughs mild and few and the thrills predictable and unconvincing.  (A dark and stormy night?  Really?)  In fact, I found myself losing focus a lot as I tried to figure out where Lucas was heading and, after the intermission, what he was trying to tell us.  I never did, by the way.  (My companion, Diana, had the same problems and intermission buzz confirmed that we weren’t alone.)  According to the Atlantic’s P.R., The Lying Lesson’s supposed to be dealing with “essential questions about memory, identity, and truth-telling.”  Well, maybe—but on a pretty superficial and insubstantial level, as far as I could tell.  As I said to a friend afterwards, there was lying in the play, but the lies aren’t really very big and there's no lesson to be drawn from them.

I have no idea why Lucas wrote this play.  I’ve never been a fan of Lucas’s and I don’t know his work very well, but in his review, Isherwood says the playwright’s works “vary widely both in quality and style” and that The Lying Lesson is “an unusually temperate” example of his writing.  Maybe Lucas is just a big fan of Bette Davis.  The play seems to have no purpose except to sketch a portrait of the star in late life (it's set just eight years before her death).  Most damaging—and enervating (it's a fairly long evening)—is that there doesn't seem to be a point.  I think Lucas was just star-fucking.  (Of course, in this case, it's also necrophilia!) 

I suppose that what Lucas may have been up to, presumably anyway, was to bring together two people seemingly from opposite ends of the spectrum, a famous and worldly movie star at the end of her career and a small-town young woman with no apparent accomplishments, and by showing how much alike they actually are, reveal truths about them—and us all.  (I’m totally guessing here, you understand.)  Of course, nothing like that happens.  What we end up with is a sort of buddy play: two mismatched women thrown together in a somewhat fraught circumstance and they fill in each other’s missing bits.  Well, sort of: that last part isn’t so clear.  Lucas dresses The Lying Lesson up by making one of the two women Bette Davis  (and getting Carol Kane to do a sort of drag-queen impersonation of her).  That’s so he can drop a lot of Hollywood references and factoids to keep older folks like me (and I’m barely old enough—Davis was already a big star by the time I was old enough to watch movies) and old-movie junkies hopping.  (‘What movie was that an allusion to?’  ‘She said “Willy”—is that William Wyler?’)  The wordless bit at the end of the play is a reenactment of a iconic moment from a movie made four years before I was even born.  It was like a live version of Trivial Pursuits: Bette Davis Edition.  If it hadn‘t been two hours long (with the intermission), it might have been sort of fun: Not Bette Davis, but an incredible simulation. 

But of course, it was two hours and Lucas gave it a plot I also had to get through.  The story of buying the house and the lost teenage love and who is Minnie really and who’s lying now and about what is just an excuse to put Davis on stage, so it’s all essentially meaningless and uninteresting and tedious.  Trust me, if I get to the intermission and I ask, out loud, “Where the hell is this going?”—it’s tedious!  (At The Mound Builders the previous week, there was something of an exodus at intermission; that didn’t seem to happen at the Atlantic.  The house was, in fact, quite full even given the poor critical reception the play got.)  Anyone who’s been reading my performance reports know about my two criteria for good theater: 1) It must do more than tell a story, and 2) it must do it in a theatrical way.  Well, The Lying Lesson is theatrical—though much of that is cheap theatrics: the thunderstorm and the blackout, the intruder climbing through the window, a prop gun that turns out not just to be real, but loaded, and so on—but it only tells a little story, and not a very interesting one, so it’s not going on my list.

Physically, the production was fine: perfectly appropriate for the needs without being especially outstanding.  Neil Patel’s seedy, unprepossessing house, surrounded by dense foliage visible through the windows, looks just like hundreds of similar old homes, furnished haphazardly and without much thought to décor or style—a chrome-and-plastic table in the dining area with a couple of yellow vinyl chairs around it, a wood-framed couch in the center of the living room, and so on.  A dingy environment for a fading Hollywood star.  The stage was lit by Russell H. Champa to enhance the seaminess of the set, and the storm with which we were greeted, enhanced by the sound effects of Broken Chord, was entirely believable—and loud!  (There were signs in the lobby warning patrons about the herbal cigarettes smoked on stage, but no warning about the heart attack-inducing thunder claps and lightning bolts.)  Ilona Somogyi’s costumes made their points nicely: Davis’s Hollywood style, perhaps not red-carpet-worthy, but substantial and smart, and her loungewear that was way too elegant for her current surroundings, and Minnie’s country tom-boy get-up contrasted perfectly with one another.  Add the Bette Davis wig Charles LaPointe designed for Carol Kane, and the play looked terrific.

MacKinnon did a creditable job of moving the actors about the set, but the pace she set was, as the New York Post reviewer put it, glacial.  Since little happens through most of the play—I’m not confusing “action” with “activity” here: the characters do a lot of business—the deliberate tempo of MacKinnon’s staging only exacerbated the tedium of Lucas’s script.  It’s not as if there’s suspense that warrants attenuating the action of The Lying Lesson, so why not at least move it along more swiftly.  It wouldn’t have hurt, believe me.

I also can’t really compliment MacKinnon on her work with the actors.  Neither Kane nor Mickey Sumner (Minnie—yes, that’s right: “Mickey” is “Minnie”) did terrible work here, but neither was especially brilliant on stage, either.  Kane captured the familiar, almost-mannish walk and stance of the instantly-recognizable star, but she overemphasized it to the extent that it became a caricature.  Her vocal pattern was even worse: as nearly every reviewer noted, it sounded as if Kane were doing some kind of Eastern European accent.  As “Ruth Elizabeth” insists to Minnie that she should never reveal the star’s true identity until after the property closing, I wondered if Davis were intentionally doing some kind of foreign accent—except that she’d been doing it when no one was in the house.  At one point, Davis answers a phone call and the caller apparently tells her she sounds like a female impersonator doing an impression of Davis.  Well, that's close to what Kane sounded like.  Isherwood, in fact, remarked that Kane “keeps her performance from devolving into a vulgar drag act (without the drag).”  I only deny that the actress avoided the pitfall.

As for Minnie, Sumner makes the young woman gangly and boyish, loping around the set and draping herself into or onto the furniture as if she were loose-jointed.  Several reviewers complimented her on her Maine accent, but some observed that it was both a little shaky (it “detours from Bronx to Boston,” said Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News) and just as drawn out as the production was overall.  (I went to camp in Maine and I have family in Massachusetts where I’ve spent many holidays and vacations.  What Sumner voiced didn’t sound much like any Downeasterner I ever heard.  Ay-yup.  Sumner, who’s Sting’s daughter, by the way—his birth name is Gordon Sumner—was born and raised in England—the old one, not the New one.)  The dialect coach was Kate Wilson. 

Most of the press I scanned agreed pretty much down the line, with the few variations in opinion coming in the intensity of either the compliments or the detractions.  Isherwood, for instance, called the play “sedate and moderately sentimental” while Dziemianowicz said it was “an odd duck of a play—and an inedible one at that.”  The Lying Lesson is naught but “a cheesy thriller” to Michael Feingold in the Village Voice, but on CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman said it was “nonsensical and dreary.”  Only Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman actually found the play “engrossing and highly enjoyable.” 

The consensus is pretty universal with respect to what the play means.  On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray asked of the play’s intent, “Why.”  Murray’s response: “The Lying Lesson does not have a point of view” commensurate with Lucas’s other work.  Back Stage’s Erik Haagensen merely dubbed the play “not . . . particularly deep” but Saltzman called it a “meaninglessly meandering text.”  The Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli, in arguably the most direct conclusion, declared simply that “it’s hard to tell what Lucas is trying to say.” 

Some outlets had better things to say about the acting than others, and some preferred Kane over Sumner or vice versa.  (“Mickey Sumner gives a very convincing performance as a New England townie, complete with flawless dialect.  You can practically smell the lobster wafting off of her clothes,” wrote TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart.  “And Carol Kane is superb as Davis. Not only does she capture the star’s (very imitable) inflections and mannerisms . . . but she also acts through and beyond impersonation,” pronounced Feldman in TONY.)  Just about the only paper that was essentially positive in its overall assessment was Back Stage, the theater trade weekly.  Despite the reservation I quoted earlier, Haagensen found the play “mostly great fun” and with a “witty, biting script.”  Kane succeeds through her “humanity,” Haagensen asserted, and Sumner “keeps us guessing,” all under “Pam MacKinnon’s eagle eye.”  The Back Stage reviewer described the physical production elements in superlatives and, after suggesting that the “script could lose some fat” and acknowledging that the “ending, though perfectly plausible, doesn’t quite satisfy,” Haagensen concluded “‘The Lying Lesson’ is a nimble, twisty, and very funny entertainment.”  (Haagensen’s is not an assessment I agree with much.  I’m just reporting; you decide.)

According to a number of the reviews, Lucas wrote a note at the beginning of the script of The Lying Lesson stating “This play is a damn lie.”  Apparently what he means is simply that the events presented in the play are fictional, but to my ears, the statement pretty much sums up the theatrical experience altogether: it’s a phony drama.  It pretends to be substantial and portentous—and it’s played as if it is—but it’s really not.  Theatrically and dramatically, The Lying Lesson is a damned lie.  I said I wasn’t particularly a fan of Craig Lucas’s work.  The Lying Lesson didn’t change my mind on that. 

[When I told my friend Kirk that I would be seeing The Lying Lesson, just after Isherwood’s review came out, he e-mailed me this anecdote about the late movie star:

[I have one Bette Davis story.  For a while I weekended in Weston, Connecticut, near Westport, where Davis lived, and I saw her house – a modest ranch house.  We knew a cab driver who desperately wanted to pick her up at the train station sometime, and finally did.  He rattled on to her about her movies, her roles, her famous lines, etc.  Finally she said to him (supply the tone of voice for yourself), “You're queer, aren't you?”]


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