A glib, episodic, overlong one-act fraught with cliches and twice-told truths, Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning play wears thin quickly, its jokes already shopworn, its conclusions ill-considered, its sympathies misplaced. One wonders whether the Mark Taper Forum would have mounted this flawed work were it not for the award.

A glib, episodic, overlong one-act fraught with cliches and twice-told truths, Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning play wears thin quickly, its jokes already shopworn, its conclusions ill-considered, its sympathies misplaced. One wonders whether the Mark Taper Forum would have mounted this flawed work were it not for the award.

Pedophilia is “Drive’s” primary leitmotif, and in the right hands this sensitive though much-examined subject might have been illuminated by a seriocomic approach. Unfortunately, Vogel’s baser instincts triumph, and audiences get only a trite, sitcom-like sendup of Southern life.

The story is told in flashbacks by the victim herself, Li’l Bit (a rigid, unpersuasive Molly Ringwald). The character’s tone is shockingly indifferent, her rage seemingly nonexistent. On the other hand, Vogel draws the aggressor, Li’l Bit’s Uncle Peck (the strikingly supple Brian Kerwin), almost sympathetically as a semiworldly man whose genuine affection for his niece is colored by desperate carnal desires.

Yet “Drive’s” broad approach and herky-jerky structure make it difficult to find nuance in what Vogel must have hoped would be poignant as well as comic material. Employing a series of rapid-fire vignettes and a chorus of voices in place of a strong narrative doesn’t help. Nor does framing the drama with driving instructions (“Shifting Forward From First to Second Gear,” “You and the Reverse Gear”). Even this play’s “revelations” are predictable: Peck’s a drunk as well as a child molester, and Mary, Peck’s wife and Li’l Bit’s aunt, refuses to acknowledges her husband’s sins.

Though we never find out what makes Peck the man he is, Vogel at least lends him a couple of solid characteristics. As for Li’l Bit, the effects of Peck’s abuse are never examined and, beyond her drinking a good deal and enjoyment of long drives, we learn little about her life as a woman.

On a happier note, director Mark Brokaw does a fine job making Vogel’s work watchable. By indulging the playwright’s penchant for sudden shifts (like in driving!), the helmer achieves an appealing zaniness, with characters and props bobbing and weaving. The three chorus members do generally solid work in a host of stereotypical roles.

But Ringwald’s wooden performance is very disappointing. She delivers her lines self-consciously and sounds vague when she should be aloof. In contrast, Kerwin offers a subtle portrait of a man undermined by demons but no less human for his failings. The actor’s charm is insinuating and welcome, and his complex performance is this production’s only real highlight.

How I Learned to Drive

Mark Taper Forum; 750 seats; $40 top

Production

A Center Theater Group production of a play in one act by Paula Vogel. Directed by Mark Brokaw.

Creative

Sets, Narelle Sissons; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, David Van Tieghem. Opened and reviewed Feb. 24, 1999. Closes April 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MINS.

Cast

Teenage Greek Chorus/ Grandma/others - Rona Benson Male Greek Chorus/ Big Papa/others - Justin Hagan Female Greek Chorus/ Mother/others - Johanna Day Li'l Bit - Molly Ringwald Peck - Brian Kerwin
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