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A CurtainUp Review
The Lying Lesson

"Now look. You cannot make yourself indispensable by sweeping in and out, saving my life, grateful as I may be, and I am, Minnie, though saying your name makes me feel as if I am in a tawdry remake of a shabby B picture set in the deepest south where Minnie suffers from neurasthenia and darkies sing spirituals to keep her going, I must tell you I am used to people trying to take advantage of what they assume to be my position."" — Ruth Elizabeth Davis

The Lying Lesson
Mickey Sumner and Carol Kane
She was known professionally as Bette Davis (1908 - 1989) and born Ruth Elizabeth Davis. Perhaps more than any other actor of her time she took charge of her life and of her career in a manner that was an astonishment to her peers and other professionals in the film industry in the golden age of the movies from the late 1930s into the early 1950s.

Davis's autobiography, as well as numerous biographies, gave us a pretty good picture of the kind of woman she was. Her physical mannerisms, particularly her clipped speech and the swirling cigarette, were so identified with her persona that she would essentially, if not unwittingly, evolve into a caricature of her own design, too often as a prime target for female impersonators good and not so good.

Carol Kane, who has had a formidable stage and TV career, but who I still remember best for her Oscar-nominated performance in Joan Miklin Silver's 1975 film Hester Street, portrays the above star with the obligatory mannerisms in Craig Lucas's new play The Lying Lesson. It's a rather facetious fabrication, or as Lucas call it on the first page of the script, "a damn lie." And since it's a sin to tell a lie, let me say that this is not a very good play, nor is the way it is being played.

We have a right to expect more from Lucas who was nominated for a Tony in 2005 for his book for the musical The Light in the Piazza (score by Adam Guettel), as well as for a number of plays that I have not only admired but also considered among the best in the year that they opened. These include Reckless, Blue Window, Prelude to a Kiss and The Dying Gaul. Lucas has not only let me down with this nonsensical and dreary play, but also made a mockery of the memory of Davis.

The Lying Lesson will not be included in any future best play list of mine, unless it is to recall Lucas's stunning lapse of credulity and creativity,under the dismissive direction of Pam Mackinnon. Yes, this is the Mackinnon whose direction brought a brilliant new perspective to the revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf this season. It's hard to imagine what perspective Mackinnon could have had in mind in tackling this meaninglessly meandering text, but the result doesn't speak well of it.

Creating a fanciful plot to incorporate the presence of the incomparable Davis certainly isn't the most absurd idea in the world, but the absurdities and banalities that mark The Lying Lesson cannot be easily dismissed or forgiven. It's a dark and stormy night (so far so good) when Davis (Kane) enters the main room of a quaint seaside home in Maine (unpretentiously furnished by designer Neil Patel) that she intends to purchase. Holy cow! Kane actually looks a bit like Davis in her mid seventies. Her diminutive stature and twitchy walk is right on as is the flat top with frizzy-ends hairdo that looks quite like the one in some late photos of Davis.

Left suddenly in the dark following a loud crash of thunder, Davis's fright increases as she sees an intruder pry open the kitchen window and climb through it. Confronting the intruder with a large carving knife Baby Jane, oops I mean Davis, threatens her from clear across the room with, "I will sever your carotid artery." We are grateful that she doesn't as the intruder is neither a burglar nor a murderer, but Minnie Bodine (Mickey Sumner), a rough-around-the-edges woman in her mid thirties who says she has been sent to fix the clock. Well, that's as plausible as anything that follows.

Davis is in negotiations to purchase the house and because this is a two-character play, Minnie is going to do more than fix the clock. She is, in fact, soon on her way to negotiating her way into Davis' trust, as well as being offered a job as her assistant, whatever that might entail — despite having taken the brunt of condescending cascade of put-downs. It won't spoil anything to mention that Minnie, who Davis has decreed as being "culturally undernourished," indeed has, a secret agenda. It doesn't take us long to figure out that Davis is being duly duped into thinking that the woman with whom she has been drinking Scotch and smoking is not who she has said she is. Surprise! No!

Credit goes to Kane for underplaying the staccato speech patterns that are familiarly associated with Davis, but her intonation is such that much of what she says is unintelligible, although I'm not sure that isn't a good thing. Sumner, who is making her Off Broadway and Atlantic Theater Company debut, cannot be faulted for her exemplary New England speech or for the way she has managed to survive both Davis and Lucas. It's a lesson she won't soon forget.

The Lying Lesson
By Craig Lucas
Directed by Pam Mackinnon

Cast: Carol Kane (Ruth Elizabeth), Mickey Sumner (Minnie Bodine)
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street
(212) 279 - 4200
Tickets: $70.00
Performances: Tuesday - Friday, 8PM, Saturday, 2PM & 8PM, Sunday, 3PM & 7PM
From 02/20/13 Opened 03/13/13 Ends 03/31/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/10/13
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