NEW YORK — How can time stand still for so long? It has been almost 25 years to the day since Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse took their bows for the off-Broadway opening of “How I Learned to Drive.” And here they are in that same play on Broadway — older, for sure, but delivering performances that now feel even wiser.
Pulitzer justice was served when this drama and its author, Paula Vogel, were awarded the prize in 1998 for a story that recounts in exquisitely poignant detail the sexual grooming by a middle-aged man of his underage niece. The subject was raw and difficult back then. It remains so on the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, site of the play’s official opening on Tuesday night. Its original director, Mark Brokaw, once again applies marvelously delicate theatrical varnish to the words Vogel so cannily placed on the page.
Time is indeed a fickle commodity on Broadway, where plays old and new are sprouting this month at a breathless rate, due to pandemic delays and the rush to get in before the Tony nominations deadline, on April 28. Martin McDonagh’s deeply pleasurable “Hangmen,” for instance, was supposed to have been a highlight of spring 2020 on Broadway, but is only now getting its riotous close-up. Alas, time has not been as kind to another April entry, a revival of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.” It made its Broadway debut in 1976 and does not shake off the impression of being an energetic relic.
Nostalgia is nowhere apparent in the revival of “How I Learned to Drive,” which also boasts the return of Johanna Day from the original supporting cast (Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers complete the Manhattan Theatre Club ensemble). Rachel Hauck’s utilitarian set and Dede Ayite’s costumes finely embroider Vogel’s account of a restless girl, Parker’s Li’l Bit, falling under the spell of Morse’s Uncle Peck, a sexual predator with a soothing voice and toxic intentions.
Vogel’s narrative hopscotches the stolen years of Li’l Bit’s Maryland adolescence, when her mother and grandmother allow her to drift into her uncle’s arms. “Peck’s so good at this when they get to be this age,” Day, as Li’l Bit’s mother, observes cluelessly. The play’s perspective is of an older, troubled Li’l Bit, who struggles to divest herself of Peck’s cloying attentions. Day, Gold and Myers play a variety of figures in and around Li’l Bit’s life, annotating in asides to the audience the steps in Peck’s predation as chapters in a driver’s manual — it is through teaching her to handle a car that he advances his perverse seduction.
Over the years, society has come to a more profound understanding of the kind of abuse Vogel and Brokaw dramatize. The disturbing subtext in our time is that light is shed daily on new, sordid tales of this variety. Perhaps the enduring power of “How I Learned to Drive” is the humane choreography of Vogel’s treatment of this sensitive material. Morse is as unsettlingly persuasive as ever as Peck, an insidious presence in a mask of paternal caregiving. In Parker’s performance, all the curiosity and neediness and bravado of a girl seeking to find herself is wondrously evident — it’s as if she’s known Li’l Bit half her life. Because she has.
Abusive men also figure in “For Colored Girls …”, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theatre. The production, directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown, will be a warming experience for those who rightly recognize it as a seminal advance in storytelling by Black women on Broadway; the original production — whose cast included Shange herself — ran at the Booth for 742 performances.
Actors portraying the seven “Ladies,” each identified by their costume color, narrate in lyrical monologues and invigorating movement the struggles in their lives. Many of the speeches celebrate the hard-won liberation of women who here form a gallery of shared oppression. The resonance of the piece is in the dignity it confers on them and their opportunity to stand up and speak, sing and dance for themselves.
There are compelling interludes, particularly in tragic and amusingly defiant arias by Kenita R. Miller and Okwui Okpokwasili. At other times, though, a thematic repetitiveness takes hold. You can appreciate the eloquence of Shange’s poetry, but it’s a voice that comes across as anchored in a bygone era. One yearns these days for a broader sampling of what’s beating in the hearts of the Ladies in orange, brown, red, green, blue, purple and yellow.
On Thursday night, there was yet another opening: “Hangmen” at the Golden Theatre. It’s a bona fide humdinger of a black comedy by Martin McDonagh, that master conductor on the route to bloody ends. The scene is England’s North in the mid-1960s and the action — inspired by the abolishment of hanging for capital crimes — takes place principally in the Lancashire pub of Alice (Tracie Bennett) and Harry (David Threlfall), the latter compelled to retire from his job as the last English hangman.
Only McDonagh, it seems, could mine this twisting tale of kidnap, murder and miscarriage of justice for laughs. And laughs he gets in abundance. Threlfall’s magnificently bombastic Harry reigns like a pompous latter-day Henry VIII over the bullied regulars in his pub, realized in grandly atmospheric fashion by set and costume designer Anna Fleischle. Harry’s hubris is the attitudinal linchpin for the plot, concerning the visit by a tightly wound, terrifyingly polite stranger played by Alfie Allen, who spells danger for Harry and Alice’s teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French).
Director Matthew Dunster has a highly developed ear for McDonagh’s gruesome music, so this splendid cast always has an audience uproariously in hand. Bennett is such an authentic presence as browbeaten Alice that you’re inclined to dial up a therapist for her; Andy Nyman’s Syd, Harry’s onetime gallows assistant, proves a thoroughly nimble comic creation, and as the pub denizens, Richard Hollis, John Horton, Ryan Pope and Jeremy Crutchley could risibly fill out the bill as the rude mechanicals in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The comedic buildup gives the playwright just enough, er, rope, to make us both scandalized and happy. As he’s shown in works such as “The Pillowman” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” McDonagh is a writer with a truly warped sense of humor — of such diabolical magnitude you might label it unsound. And I mean that in the best possible way.
How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Set, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Mark McCullough; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem; video, Lucy Mackinnon. About 1 hour 40 minutes. At Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange. Directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown. About 95 minutes. Set, Myung Hee Cho; costumes, Sarafina Bush; lighting, Jiyoun Chang; sound, Justin Ellington; projections, Aaron Rhyne. With Amara Granderson, Alexandria Wailes, Tendayi Kuumba, D. Woods, Stacey Sargeant. About 90 minutes. At Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York.
Hangmen, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Matthew Dunster. Sets and costumes, Anna Fleischle; lighting, Joshua Carr; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph. With Owen Campbell, Josh Goulding. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through June 18 at Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York. For all three shows: telecharge.com 212 239-6200.