The Lying Lesson, now playing at the Atlantic Theater, picks up and moves quite well in the second half of the show. I start with that caveat because the first half of the show is a little creaky and some of the audience was lost – which was a shame. The Lying Lesson concerns Bette Davis in the later years of her life. She has come to a small Maine town to investigate buying property in a town she visited in her youth.
Playing the iconic Bette Davis is Carol Kane, in a performance that was spot on in looks, stage business and mannerisms, but she doesn’t always match Miss Davis’ voice and cadence. That was a definite problem at times, since the character hides her identity for part of the first half while interacting with the house’s caretaker.
Mickey Sumner played that caretaker, a young lady named Rose. Ms. Sumner had her own problems with accents, occasionally fading in and out of the distinctive clipped Maine sounds.
|Mickey Sumner and Carol Kane in The Lying Lesson|
Rose, apparently unfamiliar with Bette Davis, ingratiates herself by providing local color and much appreciated help – not the least of which is providing Scotch and cigarettes. As the evening proceeds, it turns out that Rose may know more than she lets on. Bette Davis and Rose play a cat and mouse game with the truth that brings out the best performance from both of the actors. It is in this second half that Carol Kane begins to inhabit Bette Davis and Mickey Sumner steps up her work in response.
Miss Davis is past her prime and thinking of leading a simpler life. Rose is afraid of being stuck in this simple life for the rest of her days, and so she is auditioning for the role of Bette’s new assistant – whether Bette wants one or not.
There are a fair number of references to old Better Davis movies like Of Human Bondage and Old Acquaintances. The highlight of the play is a scene in which Bette explains the opening of The Letter, shot by shot – as an example of how to lie (hence the title).
The Lying Lesson is a fairly low stakes affair, neither homage to stars of old nor a comic tragedy at their expense. Prolific writer Craig Lucas has stocked the play with the trappings of movies, to the point of parody (it starts on a dark and stormy night…). Yet Director Pam Mackinnon, who did the new Broadway version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, doesn’t let the show fall into a joke. She keeps the story focused on the human desires of these two women. Which is critical, the entire play could have turned into an over the top drag performance rather easily.
It is a lightweight affair, but good fun if you are a fan. On reflection, it might play very well as a drag performance.
The Lying Lesson
Playwright: Craig Lucas
Director: Pam Mackinnon
Cast: Carol Kane, Mickey Sumner