By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 15, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

Simple terms applicable to automotive education — terms such as shifting gears, and going into reverse — carry complicated meanings in the 2econd Stage Theatre’s idling revival of How I Learned to Drive. Now, 15 years after the premiere of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play (for which the originating stars, Mary Louise Parker and David Morse, won multiple awards), the narrator known as Li’l Bit gets to tell her story again. It’s a story of a grown woman’s hurt, anger, and desire to understand what happened to her years ago at the hands of her loving Uncle Peck, back when she was bewildered by her own early-maturing body. It’s about what twisted, alcoholic, but weirdly well-meaning Uncle Peck had in mind while he was teaching his bosomy niece about signaling and stop signs. It’s a tale of pedophilia, incest, female sexuality, and adult recovery from childhood sex abuse. And it’s a play meant to round a hairpin turn towards one woman’s uneasy forgiveness, in the end, of a man who can’t simply be written off as a monster.

But, as staged by director Kate Whoriskey (whose last Broadway credit was The Miracle Worker with Abigail Breslin), this revival feels more like a loose-leaf binder of lessons from the playwright than one woman’s affecting emotional road journal. The tonal confusion begins with the disjuncture of Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz in the lead roles of Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck. Reaser (forever known to the Twilight crowd as Esme Cullen) is a striking, strong-jawed actress who projects strength, independence, and even a little bit of swagger; it’s an attitude she emphasizes on stage by the way she sets her stance, feet firmly planted in tough-chick boots. As a result, though, Reaser has to work a little too hard to convince us that this L’il Bit really is vulnerable, either as an adult or, in flashbacks, as a girl between the ages of 11 and 18. Meanwhile Butz, an actor of tremendous, limber versatility (he won a Tony last year for the musical Catch Me If You Can), chooses to create an Uncle Peck who is tormented, pitiable, and gallant — but not sinister. The result, in this telling, is a niece who comes across as more petulant and teasing than defenseless, and an uncle who’s more ardent than twisted.

Vogel fills out her drama with three characters she calls Male Greek Chorus (Kevin Cahoon), Female Greek Chorus (Jennifer Regan), and Teenage Greek Chorus (Marnie Schulenburg) — played by three actors who inhabit a portfolio of characters, including auntie, grandma, waiter, and classmate. They work their little feet off, this supporting trio. At times they’re called upon to sing in close harmony, too. But the more they pop in and out, the less they add to the narrative, clogging up the stage as unnecessary theatrical devices. Whoriskey has a penchant for bits-and-pieces blocking (poor Helen Keller wandered all around the place in the director’s production of The Miracle Worker). And that restless staging, combined with these wandering Greek Chorus members, makes for a lot of road obstructions as L’il Bit tries to convince us that she has finally learned how to step on the gas and travel on. B?

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