DANNY: So how'd you do last night?
BERNIE: Are you kidding me?
DANNY: Yeah?
BERNIE: Are you fucking kidding me?
DANNY: Yeah?
BERNIE: Are you pulling my leg?
BERNIE: So tits out to here so.

This dialogue is better in print than it necessarily sounds onstage, because it's so evocative: Getting all the tones right takes a lot of work. Douglas Sept, as Bernie, starts rockily but improves. He can be too clench-mouthed and reticent; but when Bernie cuts loose, as he does at the end of this opening story about a woman with a strange taste for sex in a flak jacket and a burning hotel room, the results are almost poetic. The production is good with these nonsense routines of Bernie's, his runs of high feeling and foul language. But the story is mainly about Danny and Deborah, who mingle for a few weeks like peacemaking members of two warring tribes, and their chemistry isn't as strong. Mamet's insight in Sexual Perversity has to do with the way men and women factionalize out of mutual ignorance, and the current production is too flat to bring out even those mild background impressions. M. Jane Barrett plays a steely Joan, the bitter man-hating counter to Bernie's obnoxious chauvinism, and a few of her moments are funny, but no production of the play can get around the fact that its women are threadbare: The show leaves you wishing for more ammunition from the female side of the battlefield.

Still, it's better than About Last Night .... This version is worth seeing to wash any residue of schlock from that movie out of your system.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Driver's Seat
How I Learned to Drive. By Paula Vogel. Directed by Molly D. Smith. Starring Cindy Basco, Paul Vincent O'Connor, Tina Jones, Rod Gnapp, and Denise Balthrop. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through Feb. 27. Call (510) 845-4700.

After nearly two decades of incest narratives that cast girls as the hapless victims of monstrous men, Paula Vogel's deadly serious comedy How I Learned to Drive ventures into treacherously ambiguous territory. Tracing the relationship that a young girl, Li'l Bit, has with her gentlemanly Uncle Peck, Vogel explores the myth of Lolita from the girl's perspective. Crisscrossing through time from the age of 11 to 35, Li'l Bit narrates her own participation in a love that both exalts and destroys her.

How I Learned to Drive, which after opening last March in New York garnered a bevy of critic's awards, has often been compared to Nabokov's Lolita. Although Nabokov approached cross-generational romance with a similar commitment to difficult truths, the solipsistic male perspective of Humbert Humbert makes the work's very ambiguousness ambiguous: Were there elements of the ruthless nymphet in Lolita or was Humbert just fantasizing it? But in Vogel's play, told from the presumed victim's perspective, there is no question about Li'l Bit's willing involvement in her own corruption. Their once-a-week assignations -- in which Peck teaches her to drive along country roads -- are an arrangement that she not only accepts but initiates. In exchange, both get more than they bargained for. Peck stops drinking. Li'l Bit learns to appreciate the precocious voluptuousness her peers and family ridicule. And they each, in their own unfortunate ways, fall in love. Though Uncle Peck is the chief engineer of the romance, he allows Li'l Bit to call the shots in the tenuous sexual encounters between them. "Nothing is going to happen unless you want it to," he says gently, and then ventures tentatively, "Do you want something to happen?" His is not a heavy-handed seduction of threats and coercion but a somewhat gentler, albeit still insidious, one of vulnerability and chivalry; he offers her not only love and flattery, but power too.

How I Learned to Drive is all the more iconoclastic in its recourse to goofy satire. A Greek chorus of three actors supports Li'l Bit's narration with snippets of 1960s pop, a motley array of cartoonish characters, and roaring vulgarity. From her profane family -- whose members are named according to the size of their genitalia, or lack thereof -- to her nerdy pre-pubescent friends, the chorus situates Li'l in a surreal, campy landscape that reflects her distorted teen-age perspective. Only Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck remain three-dimensional, giving weight to the idea that they really need each other. Vogel's patchwork postmodern style creates a choppy self-conscious texture, even as the story between girl and uncle works a slow, torturous seduction on our feelings. Sometimes these strategies -- as when church music accompanies Uncle Peck's description of Li'l Bit's "celestial orbs" -- entangle our emotions in interesting ways; other times -- like the recurring intonations of driving terms from the chorus -- provide only unnecessary reminders that "driving a car" is a metaphor.

While the play -- presented here as a Berkeley Rep/Magic Theater co-production -- has much to commend it, it founders on a weak center. Cindy Basco's rather bland, overenunciated interpretation of Li'l Bit makes us too aware that we're watching a professional playing a difficult part. Although she has some wonderful expressions in moments of emotional struggle, she remains too chirpy and friendly with the audience. She never scares us with her own belief in herself. Paul Vincent O'Connor, by contrast, is harrowing as the charming and broken Uncle Peck. Tina Jones shows magnificent range as both Li'l Bit's foulmouthed grandmother and Li'l Bit as an 11-year-old. Rod Gnapp is equally versatile as the randy grandfather and Li'l Bit's guileless young lover.

-- Carol Lloyd

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