Review by Adam Feldman. Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Craig Lucas. Dir. Pam MacKinnon. With Carol Kane, Mickey Sumner. 2hrs. One intermission.
“Isn’t this nice,” says the great Bette Davis (Kane), alone in the dark on a frayed old sofa, a butcher knife in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The power has been knocked out by a thunderstorm raging outside her remote country cottage; a stranger named Minnie (Sumner) is about to climb in through the window. This could be a scene in one of Davis’s later, less respectable films; in fact it's a moment from Craig Lucas’s engrossing and highly enjoyable The Lying Lesson, which imagines a septuagenarian Davis returning, in 1981, to a small Maine town she visited as a teenager. Although she travels under the quasi-pseudonym Ruth Elizabeth (Davis’s real first and middle names), there’s no disguising who she is: She gives herself away in the blink of a famous eye. Much less clear is the identity of Minnie, a gangling and seemingly artless local woman who—shades of All About Eve?—ingratiates herself to Davis and applies to be her assistant.
Smartly directed by Pam MacKinnon, The Lying Lesson presents itself as a thriller of sorts. But its two-hander structure is best seen as an ingenious strategy to deliver the kind of material usually found in a biographical solo show (like Full Gallop or Tru) without the presentational stasis that can drag that genre down. Lucas lets Davis repeat many of her wittiest and campiest real-life one-liners, and the personal details she doles out—childhood dreams, Hollywood rivalries, romantic failures—form the portrait of a complex woman: rueful, vengeful, sensitive but every bit as tough as she thought she had to be. And Carol Kane is superb as Davis. Not only does she capture the star’s (very imitable) inflections and mannerisms—the play suggests that Davis played them too, all along—but she also acts through and beyond impersonation. And even as she immerses herself in Davis, one catches occasional glints of the pixie dust that defines Kane’s own unique persona. This magic combination of actor and role is thrilling in itself.—Adam Feldman
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