Review Roundup: HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE Opens On Broadway

The production reunites original stars Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker and Tony nominee David Morse.

By: Apr. 19, 2022
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How I Learned to Drive

Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive opens tonight, Tuesday, April 19, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

This Broadway premiere of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece How I Learned to Drive reunites the two original stars with their award-winning director in a new production. Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker (Proof) and Tony nominee David Morse (The Iceman Cometh) head the cast of this remarkably timely and moving memory play about a woman coming to terms with a charismatic uncle who impacts her past, present and future life. Also returning is original cast member and Tony Award nominee Johanna Day, who is joined by Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers. Directing is Mark Brokaw (Heisenberg).

The creative team for How I Learned to Drive includes Rachel Hauck (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Mark McCullough (lighting design), David Van Tieghem (original music & sound design), Lucy Mackinnon (video design), Stephen Oremus (music direction & vocal arrangements), Deborah Hecht (dialect coach), and James FitzSimmons (production stage manager).

Maya Phillips, The New York Times: And yet "How I Learned to Drive" is also funny. The play doesn't sink with the gravity of its subject matter; it finds moments of levity without minimizing the tragic parts of the story. Occasionally, however, Brokaw doesn't have the lightest touch with the production's comedy and often fails to give the more stirring scenes the extra beat they require before things move along.

Helen Shaw, Vulture: I realize that doesn't make it sound like a fun 100 minutes in the theater. And Brokaw's production does show a few cracks: The glowing screens (designed by Rachel Hauck) are unhandsome; David Van Tieghem's sound design does not always amplify the actors sufficiently. But the chance to see these performers doing such incandescent work should shoulder all such concerns aside. See it for Parker, see it for Morse. Drive is also - and I'm sorry this is such an uncool way to put it - the truth. We have been surrounded in recent months by variously hysterical and inaccurate claims from politicians and blowhards about what counts as child endangerment. Vogel, with all her postmodern tricks, is offering a straight-forward account of how these things happen. A girl is in peril, and although the people around her all sense it, they actively push her further into harm.

Greg Evans, Deadline: In the 25 years since Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse first performed Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned To Drive, the name for the disturbing process that we witness being depicted on stage has long since entered widespread usage. If audiences can now readily label what happens as "grooming," Vogel's emotionally complex masterwork remains as unsettling, disarmingly funny and as deeply moving as ever.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: It is a very happy silver anniversary for a number of talented artists in the theater. Twenty-five years ago, Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" opened Off Broadway starring Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse and Johanna Day under the direction of Mark Brokaw. They're all back, looking better than ever - and that includes the play itself - only now they're on Broadway, where "How I Learned to Drive" opened Tuesday at MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Johnny OIeksinski, The New York Post: When she goes off to college and starts to realize the creepiness of her 1960s small-town Maryland predicament, leading to a devastating climax in a hotel room, we should be left in pieces. After all, what was once quietly frowned upon is now rightly seen as a grievous sin of the abuser. The scene doesn't quite reach those heights of emotion.

Juan Michael Porter II, New York Theater Guide: How does one stage a traumatizing play that focuses on grooming, pedophilia, misogyny, and incest? In the case of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive, which just premiered on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Mark Brokaw has opted to direct the most painful moments with a "folks say the wackiest things" shrug. That incongruously lighthearted approach magnifies How I Learned to Drive's horror without investing the words with greater meaning. And what words they are. Vogel has arranged the story of Li'l Bit (Mary-Louise Parker) as a set of non-chronological flashbacks that show the audience how she became a shiftless vagabond who only feels alive when she is driving full pedal to medal.

Naveen Kumar, Broadway News: It would be some comfort to say that Vogel's taxonomy of how men and women are socialized into sexual beings feels outdated or old-fashioned, but it surely doesn't. This reunion of original stars Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse rather feels like a kind of haunting, confronting the present with ghosts who never left. The play's long-overdue Broadway premiere is bracing, intimate, expertly inhabited and a rare chance to see artists reanimate their work with the benefit of wisdom.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Most good theater lives on, if it's lucky, only in the memory of those who saw it. Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, one of the signal plays of the 1990s, represents an exception. With a firm eye on the rearview mirror, this production reunites director Mark Brokaw, who helmed the show's premiere at the Vineyard in 1997, with its two exceptional original stars, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse; also along for the ride is Johanna Day as the principal soloist in the show's Greek Chorus of three, plus lighting designer Mark McCullough and sound designer David Van Tieghem. After more than a quarter of a century, they all move assuredly in old roles as the play shifts back into gear.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: Parker's reprised performance does the heavy lifting in a play that is rightly, and smartly, a memory play told from the woman's point of view. But it is the male character that offers the greater challenge. The playwright does what she can to establish Peck as a human being rather than a monster, but it is David Morse's memorable performance that makes the character credible. Indeed, his performance - gentle, earnest, likable, and thus all the more unsettling - is what I still remember from the production I saw at the Vineyard Theater in 1997. (Was that really 25 years ago?!)

Juan A. Ramirez, Theatrely: There are many reasons why people are skeptical of revivals, especially ones that trot out an original cast member for box office nostalgia's sake. But How I Learned to Drive, finally on America's most visible stage, is neither showy nor superfluous. Mary-Louise Parker has, quite frankly, never been better, and her chemistry with Morse is enough reason to commit the production to celluloid history. Seldom does a return engagement do complete justice to its source material, but this is the rare production that proves itself absolutely vital with each passing minute of its captivating time.

Elysa Gardner, New York Stage Review: While there is no excuse for the lasting damage that Peck wreaks on Li'l Bit, Vogel points out that such men seldom appear in the world as they do in news articles; it's precisely by fitting in that they're able to do such irreparable harm. It's a valuable reminder, and however familiar the subject matter of How I Learned To Drive may now seem, the play and this production will haunt you.

David Finkle, New York Stage Review: Vogel and producers also know on what side of the acting and directing their bread is buttered. Twenty-five years later and on Rachel Hauck's attractively economical set, Parker remains the 17-year-old (and then some) she was then. Remarkable! Her version of innocence assailed and fighting back is acting at a zenith. Morse's driven Peck, woefully at odds with a man's instincts for civility, matches Parker. In their many appearances, Gold, Myers, and especially Day during her imbibing moments prove their worth.

Matt Windman, amNY: 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.

Chris Jones, The New York Daily News: In the case of Parker, a riveting, restless explorer of the human psyche who can bend time, it seems, it truly does. This is, after all, a memory play and memories abide and perhaps even clarify. That said, and with all due respect to a remarkable actor, Morse feels rather less sexually menacing. That might well be a smokescreen or even a dangerous learned stereotype, given the way abuse issues often play out in reality. But if you recall the energy of his manipulations the last time, the way he clung on Li'l Bit's youth like an insect sucking blood, you will feel the difference this time around.

David Cote, Observer: Director Mark Brokaw returns to the production 25 years later with a big heart and clear eyes on a neutral set of cool blue walls and linoleum floor by Rachel Hauck, warmly lit by Mark McCullough. In the choric roles, Day, Gold and Myers expertly generate the comic froth at the edges of the drama, keeping it from foundering in lurid scenes of exploitation. Much as the play makes a contemporary audience cringe, it is full of deliberate laughs and notes of sympathy for the doomed Peck that deliberately fuzz our moral sensors.

Dan Rubins, Slant: It's hard now to imagine someone writing the headline for Ben Brantley's 1997 New York Times review of the off-Broadway production of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive: "A Pedophile Even Mother Could Love." Twenty-five years later, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is still hard to watch, but what audiences might have experienced as complex dynamics, grey areas, and blurred lines of consent back in 1997-the kind of uncertainty that spurred Brantley to describe Uncle Peck's crimes against Li'l Bit as "in some appalling way, a real love story"-will resonate now with all the ambiguity of a three-alarm fire.

Christian Lewis, Did They Like It?: Though there may be some imperfect elements, it is hard to have anything but praise for this piece. It is clear that the focus was on Parker and Morse's performances, and they so superbly showcase that this play is a masterpiece. How I Learned to Drive is one of those plays, like Fefu and Her Friends or Cloud Nine, that have been canonized, anthologized, and taught in so many drama classes, but are infrequently produced. I felt blessed and honored to get to see it here in person. In fact, we should all feel fortunate to see Vogel's ingenious play on stage and to see it so beautifully performed by the divine Mary-Louise Parker. This play is a gift, and we are lucky to receive it. I hope this begins a trend of much more Vogel, indeed.

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