Review: Lucas' 'The Lying Lesson' a gentle comedy

AP News
Posted: Mar 13, 2013 8:31 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Sometimes it's better to leave your first childhood crush in the past, or you may spoil lovely memories.

Craig Lucas' gentle new comedy, "The Lying Lesson," opened Wednesday night in an intriguing world premiere, presented off-Broadway by the Atlantic Theater Company.

Director Pam MacKinnon (who most recently helmed "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Clybourne Park" on Broadway) creates a suspenseful air of cat-and-mouse intrigue, although who's the cat is never really an issue. Set in a fictional coastal Maine town in the summer of 1981, an out-of-town woman calling herself Ruth Elizabeth is visiting a house that she's considering purchasing.

Carol Kane is an absolute delight as Ruth, who is soon revealed to be famous movie star Bette Davis. Davis is no longer young, yet still feisty and imperious, and Kane is commanding in her mature, sparkling impersonation. She masterfully enacts the measured, gliding walk, haughty stares and precise speaking cadence we recognize from Davis' many films.

MacKinnon creates increasing tension in the opening scene, during an electrical blackout in a thunderstorm. It culminates in Ruth, alone in a strange house, gamely wielding a kitchen knife like a gladiator as an intruder slips in through a window.

Mickey Sumner makes an effective off-Broadway debut in her deft portrayal of Minnie Bodine, the local Jill-of-all-trades who seems eagerly interested in helping Ruth get settled in. Initially dismissive of her gawky neighbor, Ruth warms to Minnie and sees potential for her as they begin to form a friendship. Kane grandly sashays around the living room, as Ruth tries to get in touch with her first love, a local boy she adored many decades earlier.

Minnie is unfazed by Ruth's bristly sense of humor, and the pair share confidences while Ruth reminisces about a childhood stay in town with her family. They discover many details of their lives are similar, except where, as Ruth wryly intones at a horrifying revelation by Minnie, "Here our stories diverge."

With a credible Maine accent, Sumner gives a coltish energy and appeal to Minnie, who appears to be a pleasant, unpolished young woman stuck in a bad marriage. However, Ruth discovers that her sometimes evasive new acquaintance is hiding some secrets, and she plans to turn the tables on her erstwhile helper.

Lucas surely had fun incorporating details of real-life stories and famous comments made by Davis, as well as lines from some of her films. He even has Ruth say jokingly, "I have Bette Davis eyes." For those who missed the 1980s, that's a comical reference to a Grammy-winning song called, "She's Got Bette Davis Eyes."

As for who is actually lying, let Ruth have the definitive answer: "An artist must keep some secrets to herself."