Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” has come to the Mark Taper Forum, and one wonders if it has lost something in its trip across country. Despite an arresting performance by Brian Kerwin, its male lead, this Los Angeles production doesn’t live up to the high expectations that preceded its arrival. The play received critical acclaim during its New York run, culminating in the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. (Vogel is wowing New York critics once again this season with the debut of her latest play, “The Mineola Twins.”)
As for “Drive,” it centers on the uncomfortably incestuous relationship between a blossoming young girl, “Li’l Bit” (played by Molly Ringwald), and “Peck” (Brian Kerwin), her fortysomething uncle-by-marriage.
Set in a backwater area of Maryland during the 1960s, “Drive” jumps forward in time and into reverse, highlighting seminal moments in the long, private courtship of Li’l Bit by the gallant and seductive Uncle Peck. Instead of a tightly constructed narrative, it’s a series of scenes built around Li’l Bit’s ongoing driving lessons under her uncle’s tutelage. It’s tenuously held together with bits of early 1960s music, allusions to gear shifts and pop-u p visits by a “Greek chorus” of three actors who make as much as they can of material that’s too often stale and jokey and lacking in depth. (A corny case in point: the family gives its members nicknames based on the size of their genitalia — hence “Li’l Bit” and “Big Papa.”)
As for the leads, Vogel has created a complex pedophile-as-tragic-hero with Uncle Peck, a handsome, brooding war veteran with the romantic, tortured soul of a poet. Wrestling his own urges to drink and to deflower his niece when she’s “ready,” Peck is the play’s most fully realized character. The excellent Brian Kerwin, in a self-assured, graceful performance, brings him vividly to life. Peck may be the agent of L’il Bit’s ruined innocence, but he’s also, in many respects, her one and only salvation. With corny humor worthy of “Hee Haw,” Vogel makes it clear that Peck is the most sophisticated worldly presence for Li’l Bit, amidst crude relatives and rude schoolmates. Other relatives may suspect what is going on between them, but no one says anything. (Johanna Day does turn in a masterful monologue as Peck ‘s savvy but silent wife, who puts the blame for this improper romance squarely on her niece’s young shoulders.)
Li’l Bit, however, is a complete cipher from beginning to end. She remains a blankfaced object, even as a grown narrator telling us her tale in flashback. We find out startlingly little about how her experience affected her, other than that she had a drinking problem in college and that she finds solace alone in her car. There are a few hints that Li’l Bit ultimately grew up to be homosexual, but they’re given short shrift, tossed off as red herrings and then forgotten. It’s unclear if this was the intention of the playwright, or director Mark Brokaw, who generally does a solid job. Vogel has said that she had wanted to write a reconsideration of Nabokov’s “Lolita” from the female point of view, but the woman’s perspective never crystallizes. On the contrary, it’s through Peck’s eyes that we watch this doomed love story unfold, and for him we end up feeling a measure of empathy.
The decision to cast Molly Ringwald in the pivotal role of Li’l Bit doesn’t help matters. While she proved her appeal in a string of light teenage film comedies early in her career, she’s out of her league here. She sports a blank expression for much of the evening, and her thin voice has a limited range. Her efforts to project it to the back of the theater result in exuberantly monotonous line readings that sound like cheerleading calls — long on enthusiasm but short on emotional resonance. The strengths of the rest of the cast (which also includes Rona Benson and Justin Hagan) make the vacuum all the more obvious.
A minor quibble: While the staging was creative and scene changes were deft, theatergoers sitting on the far left and right of the theater often found their view of the goings-on blocked, as Kerwin and Ringwald sat face-forward, in the manner of driver and front-seat passenger.
There are some affecting moments in this play, and some powerful visual images. The last few minutes seem to gel with more dramatic impact than mu ch of what had gone before, and Kerwin’s performance is a highlight. Still, one can’t help but wish that “How I Learned to Drive” had proved a fresher, more memorable trip.
“How I Learned to Drive” runs through April 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. Tickets are available through the Center Theatre Group box office, at (213) 628-2772, or through the Web site: www.TaperAhmanson.com.