‘How I Learned to Drive’: First Broadway production showcases a ‘crushing’ Mary-Louise Parker

Twenty five years after the Off-Broadway debut of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” the contemporary American classic has at long last made its bow on Broadway. Fittingly for a memory play, the stars of that first production have returned to their roles: Mary-Louise Parker as Li’l Bit, who recalls her relationship with her predatory Uncle Peck – played by David Morse – who gave her driving lessons. The original director Mark Brokaw once again leads the production, which opened at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre on April 19 for a limited run.

This long-awaited mounting of “How I Learned to Drive” earned rapturous reviews from critics. Maya Phillips (New York Times) calls the production “unforgettable” and labels it a Critic’s Pick. She credits playwright Vogel, who’s “script creates its own piercing language for assault,” and notes how despite the heaviness of the subject, the play “finds moments of levity without minimizing the tragic parts of the story.” Phillips heralds Parker and Morse, who deliver “crushing performances – both sentimental and horrific, utterly complex.” She describes Parker’s “agelessness” and her ability to depict “decades of Li’l Bit’s trauma with astute choreography,” going on to say Morse “gives a similarly empathetic performance.” She also acknowledges Johanna Day, who “delivers a vicious yet contained performance.”

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Helen Shaw (Vulture) is similarly effusive about the performers. She writes that to portray Li’l Bit’s various ages, “Parker has a trick of slumping in a chair and letting her mouth fall slightly open that makes her seem young and dizzy, and it serves her as well in her 50s as it did in her 30s.” Likewise, she describes “Morse’s defeated elegance” as “unaged.” Day, too, performs “Vogel’s slyest writing” with “bravura” and “delivers a monologue so bleak she almost stops the show.” Shaw does have some reservations, acknowledging, “Brokaw’s production does show a few cracks,” but “the chance to see these performers doing such incandescent work should shoulder all such concerns aside.”

Based on all of its stellar reviews, “How I Learned to Drive” will no doubt cruise to Tony Awards nominations next month. The play is already seen as an indispensable work of American literature and this powerful staging will no doubt earn a nomination for Best Play Revival; even though it has never been performed on Broadway before, it will be eligible in this category because of the “classics rule,” by which the Tony administration deems a work already established “in the historical or popular repertoire” as a revival.

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At the helm of the production, Brokaw is also vying for his first Tony nomination for Best Director. If the nominators are thoroughly enamored with the show, he could go along for the ride, but even some of the effusive reviews quibbled with a handful of his choices. In our current combined odds, our users expect him to narrowly miss, sitting sixth in the five person line-up.

There’s no question of how “Drive” will perform in the acting races. Fresh off her second Tony win for “The Sound Inside” last year, Mary-Louise Parker looks undeniably competitive to win Best Actress again for her transporting and devastating portrayal of Li’l Bit. David Morse also navigates his particularly challenging role with aplomb, and looks just as likely to earn a nomination in Best Actor, if not a win; he previously earned a bid for the revival of “The Iceman Cometh” starring opposite Denzel Washington. At this moment in the season, Parker and Morse both lead our odds to win Tonys in June.

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Although Parker and Morse command the stage, Featured Actress Johanna Day could also join them as a nominee for her standout ensemble role. Day starred in the original Off-Broadway production with Parker and Morse and also received stellar notices for her work, which includes numerous memorable scenes. Day has a strong track record with the Tonys, too, with past nominations for “Proof,” starring opposite Parker, and “Sweat,” which are both also Pulitzer-winning dramas. Day sits in seventh in our odds, trailing Kenita R. Miller (“for colored girls…”), Amber Gray (“Macbeth”), Uzo Aduba (“Clyde’s”), Phylicia Rashad (“Skeleton Crew”), Jessica Frances Duke (“Trouble in Mind”), and Jessie Mueller (“The Minutes”), but she is surely much more competitive than her position reflects and could easily surprise on nominations morning.

In the design categories, the very simple staging may not yield many below the line nominations, but of those contenders Mark McCullough could earn the first bid of his career for his lighting design, which seamlessly helps the audience navigate the temporal switches of this memory play. Two-time Tony-nominated costume designer Dede Ayite could also score a bid for her period work, though she also designed “Chicken & Biscuits” and “American Buffalo” this season and could contend for one of those instead.

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