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Review | Mary-Louise Parker scores in role she originated 25 years ago

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David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in “How I Learned to Drive”
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Twenty-five years since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” remains a very dark and unsettling play – one involving incest, child molestation, and alcoholism – that is somehow also an entertaining romantic comedy.

In an unexpected turn of events, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, who co-starred in the original Off-Broadway production, are reprising the roles of Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck for Manhattan Theatre Club’s new revival, which marks the play’s long-overdue Broadway premiere. Mark Brokaw, who directed the original production, has also returned for the occasion.

At 57, Parker would seem a bit old to be playing Li’l Bit, who is a self-conscious teenager. However, because the play is structured as a flashback, with Li’l Bit narrating to the audience and reminiscing about her family and then taking part in scenes with them, being older actually works to Parker’s advantage. In any event, Parker is completely convincing and wonderfully quirky while playing her character’s younger self.

The play primarily depicts the extremely unhealthy and complicated relationship between Li’l Bit and Peck, a morose alcoholic who takes solace in his relationship with Li’l Bit. Peck first molests her when she is just a child from behind the wheel of a car. From then on, in between teaching her how to drive, she occasionally permits him to touch her sexually, and their relationship continues this way until she reaches 18 years of age.

Johanna Day, the original “Female Greek Chorus,” is now joined by Alyssa May Gold as the “Teenage Greek Chorus” and Chris Myers as the “Male Greek Chorus.” Together, they play numerous roles of varying ages, adding to the play’s sense of heightened theatricality.

Brokaw’s stripped-down and highly-effective production accentuates the complex relationship between Li’l Bit and Peck, with Parker and Morse (who is impressively understated) giving nothing short of a masterclass in acting. 

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., manhattantheatreclub.com. Through May 29.

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