How I Learned to Drive, Second Stage, New York

The original production of Paula Vogel’s superb play How I Learned to Drive, in 1997, introduced a classic character: Uncle Peck, who was alcoholic and nearing 40. He was also the most engaging paedophile to emerge in English-language literature since Humbert Humbert.

In 1997, what was so disturbing about Uncle Peck, who is back on a New York stage in a solid Second Stage production directed by Kate Whoriskey, is that you understood why his niece, Li’l Bit, who narrates the 90-minute comedy-drama, remained so drawn to him. David Morse, his original interpreter, imbued him not only with the broken charm of the lovable alcoholic but also with a languid sexiness that was nearly impossible to resist.

Norbert Leo Butz, who at Second Stage plays Uncle Peck opposite the Li’l Bit of Elizabeth Reaser, lacks an erotic charge. He portrays the character as slightly pathetic and, to hold the attention of his niece through her teenage years, relies on gentle, reassuring persistence. The characterisation suffices to make you believe why the niece would not expose his advances. It does not, however, prove very disturbing.

Reaser, by contrast, gives Li’l Bit a sexier stance than did her original interpreter, Mary-Louise Parker. Partly this is owing to the fact that Reaser has such an impressive chassis: the abuse Li’l Bit endured as a teenager for her large breasts is more believable with this actress.

But the excellence of Reaser, best known as the matriarch of the Cullen clan in the Twilight movies, goes far beyond her figure. The voice in which she narrates the drama carries a steady, doleful plaint. As the adult looking back and attempting to understand what drove her uncle’s paedophilia, she is appropriately world-weary. And when she flashes us back and forth through various aspects of this memory play, her tone is always just right for what Li’l Bit might have been feeling.

Even when the chemistry between Butz and Reaser failed to engage me, I found the simplicity of Whoriskey’s production to be just right. The putting-green floor and foreshortened street lamps of Derek McLane’s setting help to conjure rural Maryland in the 1960s, and the evening’s other actors – Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan, and Marnie Schulenburg – are effective both as family members and as an occasional Greek chorus to the action.

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