Friday, March 18, 2011

Educating Rita - Don't Worry About This Nora

"Sir, a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge." - Samuel Johnson, as quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson

A boozy, sullen professor of literature is reaching for a literary metaphor to describe his remarkable success in transforming the social and academic fortunes of a strong-willed and precocious hairdresser. He eschews Shaw's Pygmalion to grab hold of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

This may seem a bit strange at first. After all, British playwright Willy Russell's 1980 comedy Educating Rita, now being given a revival by the Huntington Theatre Company, is so obviously cast from the mold of the Shavian original that you half expect the eponymous stylist to plead with her teacher to help her "walk and talk like a regular lady." However, Russell, while no Shaw, does leave enough darkness around the edges of his otherwise sunny two-hander to help it escape at times from the light of its inspiration.

Frank Bryant, the professor who has agreed to take on the tutoring of an Open University student, is depressed and badly in need of a haircut. He inhabits an untidy office, filled with books which appear to be arranged and systematized only to hide his liquor bottles. The opening moments recall Butley, Simon Gray's play about a similarly washed up English lecturer, which the Huntington revived a few years back.

Into this stale environment breezes Rita, a twenty six year old hairdresser from Liverpool who has taken advantage of the new open admissions university program to learn, in her words, "Everything." Frank asks for a clarification on this ambition, to which she brightly chirps, "Yeah!"

As Rita, Jane Pfitsch glides across the stage in a giddy array of costumes, ranging from the tacky to the gorgeous. Scene by scene, her attire and hair indicate her transformation over the course of her year studying once a week with her new instructor.

Frank openly admits to his new pupil that he is doing this Open University tutoring for the money. In fact, he has long ago given up his faith in education and maybe in culture itself. He was once a published poet, but can't even bear to look at his own work, as he thinks it is the kind of elitist rubbish that can only be appreciated by post graduate library rats.

Formula would suggest that Rita will struggle to gain the degree and Frank will become revitalized through watching her love of learning and her persistence. However, Russell has just a little more up his sleeve than the average Hollywood movie.

Rita isn't exactly what she seems at first. She comes in determined and proves to be a rather quick study, so quick, in fact, that she races ahead of our expectations. She is married to a lunkhead who thinks, "there is a time for education and it not at twenty six," but it seems as if this husband is an afterthought, even as she begins her studies - she is on the pill and refuses to get pregnant until she has found her identity. And her real name, she confesses, is Susan. She has chosen her moniker after Rita Mae Brown, author of the bestseller from the 1970's The Rubyfruit Jungle. That the play gets away with such obvious symbols is a testament not only to the playwright's amiable dialogue, but also the pleasant Huntington production.

Indeed, the affable back and forth that the actors establish during their first meeting is maintained throughout the evening, and it keeps the audience in good company, even when the play seems to drag a bit before the first act reaches its climax. The numerous short scenes can also seem a little disconnected at times. A recent British production cut the play down to 90 minutes.

Russell presents a large central question: What Is the Purpose of an Education? From there he spins of dozens of related inquiries. All of this is executed by the playwright with a very light touch - maybe too light. This is not penetrating or incisive theater. But the actors, aided by director Maria Aitken, keep things brisk and bubbly, not an easy feat considering the the lengths they need to travel on the Huntington mainstage. The office, with its tall windows and towering bookshelves, seems a little more fit for a vice chancellor at Hogwarth's than a university lecturer in the North of England.

Without ever sounding too didactic, Frank and Rita reference Chekhov, Shakespeare, Blake, Sons and Lovers, Howard's End and, yes, Mary Shelley's gothic horror story in aid of explanations about tragedy, comedy and criticism. About that last element, Frank is clear that "criticism should never be subjective." Early in the evening Rita's critical vocabulary consists of "crap", and her answer to Frank's essay question about solving the difficulties in staging Ibsen's Peer Gynt is not much more elaborate: "Put it on the radio." By the end of the night Rita is sometimes a half step ahead of her mentor.

Frank, though, is a harder case for conversion.

There is a nice irony woven into the plot. All the things that are transforming and liberating Rita are all the things that Frank loathes. Surrounded by books, he drinks constantly. Although he is able to provide the proper affectation when needed, Andrew Long also gives us the proper weariness. When Rita points out that a beautiful painting he has on his office wall is "kind of erotic," he admits, with a distracted sigh, that he hasn't "looked at that painting in ten years." Though there are flickering embers in his tired eyes as Rita gains confidence and knowledge, they dim again as he realizes that this education he is providing is bringing her to a point where she will no longer need him. And when his protege starts turning in papers crammed with the trendy analysis of current academia, it just seems too much for him to bear.

It's refreshing, in a nostalgic way, to see how successfully a two-character, one-set script can effectively explore ideas when well-crafted. Like other good plays of this kind, Educating Rita keeps the interesting interpersonal dynamics at center stage, but there is always a feeling that larger forces are moving just outside the room.

(All Photos are by T. Charles Erickson)

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