Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Lying Lesson" - A Lesson Not Learned

By Judd Hollander

Playwright Craig Lucas makes a bit of a misstep with his intriguing but unfortunately one-note work The Lying Lesson at the Atlantic Theater Company, offering a story with initial possibilities but one which ultimately fails to connect.

In a remote seaside town in 1981 Maine, a mysterious and somewhat cantankerous elderly lady named Ruth Elizabeth (Carol Kane) has arrived in the dead of night to purchase a house. Staying there alone while a storm rages outside, she waits for daylight in order meet with the real estate agent to sign the final papers. Suddenly, her silent reverie is interrupted when, in the midst of a power failure, a mysterious figure climbs through the window. The intruder turns out to be Minnie Bodine (Mickey Sumner), a young woman who looks after the place for the current owners. As for Ruth, she soon reveals herself as the Hollywood actress Bettie Davis who plans on buying the home not only for a sort of refuge from her Hollywood life, but also to be near a very special person whom she knew growing up. Someone who was Ruth's first love and the one that got away. Ruth leaving him to pursue her acting career and who now has returned to possibly rekindle that old romance. 

Minnie, a somewhat odd sort, offers to help the older woman by running errands and doing odd jobs while Ruth begins to settle into her new surroundings. Minnie has also never heard of the actress, something Ruth finds quite refreshing. As time passes, the two women settle into a sort of mentor-servant relationship. Minnie offering up some gossipy tidbits as to the makeup of the community and its citizens, the area being a kind of Peyton Place with all that goes on and Ruth regaling Minnie with tales of the Hollywood of old. That is until Ruth begins to suspect her new companion has perhaps not been as forthcoming with certain information as Minnie would have her believe.

The Lying Lesson is a show about people searching for something. Be it safety, peace of mind, or possibly a second chance. Ruth is trying to take a break from her acting life and see if she can go back to where she started, while Minnie sees in Ruth something she has never really had - someone she can talk to. Which she very happily proceeds to do; telling Ruth about such people as the local realtor who may be out for a quick buck, and of course about the actresses' long ago love and what he's up to now. Minnie also talks about her own life, including a husband who may be abusing her.

Unfortunately the piece lacks the depth to make either of the participants all that sympathetic. Kane does a nice job with the public perception of Davis, spinning tales about her celebrity life, such as her relationship with director William Wyler and her legendary feud with Joan Crawford, but there is little behind the much-parodied persona that allows the audience to get inside the head of the character. Though with a little more work, Kane would probably be able to pull off a nice one-person show about the actress. There's even the obligatory line tossed in about Bettie Davis eyes. Funny at times, accusatory at others, there eventually becomes too much of a sameness regarding Kane's actions. She also never comes off as world weary as the script would have one believe. On a more positive note, Kane does indeed look like Davis did during that time period, with the hair and mannerism almost letter perfect, although she never gets the voice quite right. Her own trademark vocal tones coming though even though there is an attempt to disguise them.

There are similar clarity problems when it comes to the character of Minnie. Sumner gets the New England accent down nicely, but she must also deal with a script which only offers hints about Minnie's background until the very end, the resulting portrayal being pretty much of a one-note offering. The character never really getting angry or desperate until the final denouement is made. There's also the disadvantage that while the Bettie Davis character has a well-documented history from which the audience can draw upon, Minnie is a blank slate when first seen and little is done to help fill in the missing pieces. For example we never find out why Minnie is seemingly ostracized by most of the townspeople, or the story behind her noticeable limp, although there are vague hints as to the latter. Additionally, the ultimate explanation offered really doesn't ring true with the ending feeling sort of tacked on in an attempt to manipulate the audience just before the curtain comes down rather than letting events unfold naturally and easily. 

Pam Mackinnon's direction nicely sets the tension and keeps the audience guessing for a while as to what's going on, but like the actors, she can only do so much with what she is given to work with. Though a scene with a gun, an old memento of Davis', doesn't come off as nail-biting as it should. Neil Patel's set of the somewhat rundown home Ruth wants to buy is okay. The hair and wig work by Charles LaPointe is especially good, as is the lighting effects by Russell H. Champa.

The Lying Lesson ultimately fails to deliver because it offers only glimpses of ideas and questions of what is to come without ever really following through on its initial promise. 

Featuring: Carol Kane (Ruth Elizabeth), Mickey Sumner (Minnie Bodine)

The Lying Lesson
By Craig Lucas
Sets: Neil Patel
Costumes: Ilona Somogyi

Lights: Russell H. Champa
Original Music and Sound: Broken Cord
Hair & Wigs: Charles LaPointe
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson
Violence Consultant: J. David Brimmer
Casting: Telsey & Company, Will Canter, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Production Manager: Michael Wade
Directed by Pam Mackinnon

The Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Closed: March 31, 2013

No comments: