David Morse and Mary Louise Parker.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
How I learned to drive begins on a hot summer night in 1969 – a night, our narrator Li’l Bit tells us, that could make a “middle-aged man with a mortgage feel like a country boy again”. This man, a tall lanky man, waits behind her while she talks to us, sitting in the front seat of a Buick. (The setting is simple: just a group of chairs surrounded by light screens.) When she joins him in the car, 17-year-old Li’l Bit and the older man are joking, flirting and negotiating. While assuring him that he was a “good boy”, he unbuttons her bra and manages to remove her top. The night is warm and sleepy – so Americana so far. And then Li’l Bit calls the man “Uncle Peck”. The first time she says it, your stomach churns. There is worse to come.
Paula Vogel’s play has been around for so long and has been so widely studied and awarded that it changed American theater. When the drama first appeared downtown at the Vineyard Theater in 1997, it broke through barriers, through taboos, through preconceptions, through formal cowardice. Dealing with heavy topics like pedophilia and family complicity, its postmodern storytelling was somehow lighthearted, even funny. It was approachable and serious, excoriating and full of forgiveness. So in the years that followed – especially after winning the Pulitzer Prize – the memory game became our pattern book. If it doesn’t seem revolutionary anymore, it’s because Conduct was on the groundplowing. A bumper crop of other coins has come out of this soil.
Twenty-five years ago Mary-Louise Parker played Li’l Bit, David Morse played Uncle Peck and Mark Brokaw directed. Now all three are back for Broadway. Strange things happen when nostalgia is wrapped up in the production, which is itself a cautionary tale about letting the atmosphere (the night, the heat, the past) drug the senses. Conduct steps back in time, revisiting increasingly old encounters: What we can just bear to watch when Li’l Bit is 17 gets more gruesome as she’s 15, then 13, then 11. The actors, however, have always been adults, so a quarter century hardly makes an ontological ripple for the viewer. Parker has a knack for slumping in a chair and leaving her mouth slightly open, which makes her look youthful and giddy, and it serves her well in her 50s as well as her 30s. Morse’s defeated elegance hasn’t aged and looked like endless repetition – when did Peck’s hair turn white? – makes the dream evening even more like a visit to the Underworld.
It’s strangely cheerful Underworld, however. The scenes between Li’l Bit and Peck are interrupted by the Greek chorus of three Vogels (Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers), who play many roles, including those of the rest of Li’l Bit’s family. The text interweaves first-person narration and acted out scenes, alternating emotional drama and heartbreaking informative interludes. In between tough seduction episodes, the chorus offers driving lessons, echoing Peck’s advice to Li’l Bit on idling and when to check your mirrors. It’s kind of unfair to the other choir members that one of them is Day. The other two are lively and effective, but the bright day actually plays rooms and flex muscles. As Li’l Bit’s mother, she performs the bravery “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” which features Vogel’s most sly writing (“Don’t be afraid to dip your head if necessary. A Wet Woman is always less conspicuous than a drunk woman!”), and as Li’l Bit’s Aunt Mary, she delivers a monologue so dark it almost shuts down the show.
Who blames whom for what? Aunt Mary and family blame Li’l Bit; the girl’s precocious puberty makes them see her as a grown woman, and they push all their caregiving duties onto her shoulders. Li’l Bit herself, whose memory drives the plot, clings to times when her confusion has turned, however briefly, into coquetry or curiosity. Peck is presented as a tortured, thoughtful person who gives his niece a number of gifts in addition to those she doesn’t want. As the rest of the family yells jokes about her boobs, Peck teaches her and listens; Vogel refuses to give up on the character, either to our disgust or its obvious monstrosity. In a New York Time maintenance in 2020, Vogel spoke of the play as an autobiography and how she processed her feelings while looking at Morse’s work. It took him years to admit that the play was based on his own experiences. “I don’t forgive him,” she said of the real person Peck is based on. “But I feel a sympathy, a sorrow, because of David.”
This sympathy drags the show like a backwash. He threatens to take you out to sea. The play’s formal restraint—the choice to use pantomime instead of actual touch, for example—makes the unbearable scenes watchable, and Parker performs with his attention half-turned to the audience, watching us to see how we’re handling things, one side of her mouth twitched into a half-smile. This puts every scene at arm’s length. But above all, we see a Peck sequence without A little. It’s called “Uncle Peck Teaches Cousin Bobby How to Fish” – and at first it sounds just as passionate and sleepy and sweet as that first scene with Li’l Bit in the Buick. Mimicking his rod and reel, Peck turns his eyes to his young nephew (who never actually appears), a little boy too tender to guard the fish he catches. As we watch in horror, Peck ruthlessly, deliberately prepares the child to be assaulted. Every expression of support and love he makes is clearly a grooming strategy; without Li’l Bit’s melting gratitude and dissociated composure to play against, Peck’s niceties expose themselves as flippant, deceitful, and crude.
I realize this doesn’t sound like a fun 100 minutes at the theater. And Brokaw’s production shows some cracks: the light screens (designed by Rachel Hauck) are unattractive; David Van Tieghem’s sound design doesn’t always amplify the actors enough. But the chance to see these performers do such incandescent work should put all those concerns aside. See it for Parker, see it for Morse. Conduct is also – and I’m sorry that’s such an uncool way of putting it – the truth. In recent months we have been surrounded by hysterical and inaccurate allegations from The politicians and blows on what is considered child endangerment. Vogel, with all his postmodern tricks, offers a simple account of how these things happen. A girl is in danger, and although the people around her everyone feels it, they actively push it further into evil. “Sometimes to tell a secret you have to teach a lesson first,” says Li’l Bit. This is the lesson of the play, surely, a lesson far more important than those that American theater has so conscientiously learned from Vogel’s writing style: Look at the thing people tell you to keep hidden – and describe it. as she really is.
How I learned to drive is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater of the Manhattan Theater Club.