Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Dragon on Drive

My posting has been light because I am finishing up a play right now. I am having an informal reading in the near future and I am putting the finishing touches on it.

Over the weekend I saw Almost, Maine at Speakeasy Stage and Devenaughn Theatre's production of Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive. This marks my third visit to a production of Vogel's shrewd mix of skits, memory, melodrama and therapy, and I still remain a little mixed when faced with its universal accolades.

The play has many merits, vaulting ambitions and a great spirit of questioning about it. But the play has never coalesced into a satisfying theatrical experience for me. The ART's production with Deborah Winger came closest for me, and Kevin Ashworth's clean-cut, rather handsome Uncle Peck at this Devenaughn production gave a new depth to the central cipher of Vogel's construction.

However, there is something consistently elusive in the tone of the play that slowly disintegrates the floor under its feet. (Rather than disintegrating the floor under our feet, which is the works intention.) Perhaps Ms. Vogel, by design, constructs it with so many tones, (just like the strands of real memories of events both tragic and happy,) that it can't help but loose its footing.

Whenever you seem to have it, a new scene emerges that throws a monkey-wrench into your perceptions. For a while, this works, and for many this is engaging. But for me, these constant sabots end up snapping the gears off.

After seeing this latest production, I was thumbing through John Simon's collection of theatre criticism, (a uniquely gut-wrenching experience which I will post about later.) I ran across his review of the original New York production and he expressed his reservations in an eloquent way that I never could, which is why, (despite his almost overwhelming acidic nature,) he is still in business, albeit at Bloomberg.

Though he is complimentary of the play, Simon asks, of all of the questions that Vogel raises: "How many unknowns can an equation hold?" He wonders, "when does playwriting become algebra?" This is precisely what I have always felt about the play. There is something thrilling to mathematics when you see how complex formulas and proofs work, but without proof it can be an endless string of notations.

Just to prove it, lets try a little game for those of you who know the play. Just keep adding interesting scenes or information to that which you already know that might change things for you.

Add a scene where we find out Peck slept with Lil Bit's Mom

Add a line near the end where Lil Bit says that she sees pictures of Uncle Peck and he doesn't look at all how she remembers him.

Add a scene where a member of the Chorus, taking up the persona of an Army buddy, talks about Uncle Peck's courage under fire.

It almost as if Vogel just keeps adding perception altering moments until she has killed off the one character, and then throws a few more on, and then decides it's time to end.

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