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A Screwed-Up Screw
The Turn of the Screw. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Henry James' novella. Directed by Lee Sankowich. Starring Darren Bridgett and Jenny Lord. At Marin Theater Company, 397 Miller Ave. in Mill Valley, through Feb. 8. Call 388-5208.

When Henry James' Turn of the Screw first appeared, in 1898, a critic warned that the novella was "by no means safe to give for a Christmas present." Haunted by lecherous ghosts, morally questionable orphans, and a zealous young governess, the tale's effect is chilling even in this age of abundant Screams and Aliens. But the book's essential danger is itself threatened when translated to the stage. Theater usually relies on its characters to stabilize the story; if they disintegrate or contradict themselves, the story dissolves as well. James' psychodrama, on the other hand, depends on the unswerving unreliability of its narrator. It holds you close to her manic mental manipulations. What's a stage adaptation to do with a narrative in which the reader is drawn closer and closer to the narrator, as if by a tightening screw?

James' story involves an unnamed vigilant virgin, hired as governess to two "holy infants" -- a young girl of 5 or 6 and a boy a few years older. The governess is indelibly smitten with their handsome and aloof uncle, but part of her assignment is never ever to trouble him. She is to live with the children on his remote country estate while he remains elsewhere. She meticulously fulfills her duty but, weirder and worse, works to "save" the children from the prurient interest of ghosts she's sure occupy them. It's not the ghosts' cravings that rivet us but her multiple, intertwined desires.

Jeffrey Hatcher structures his stage adaptation around the young woman's obsessiveness. One actor, Jenny Lord, plays only the governess; the other, Darren Bridgett, plays everyone else. Although the governess has an actress all to herself, the script consistently undermines her centrality by supplying dopey literalizations for the intricate possibilities she perceives: In her interview with the uncle, he plants a long kiss on her hand and engages in smirking innuendo. She makes out with her young male charge, embellishing to the point of absurdity what the book depicts as an attraction as irresistible as it is actively repressed. And the housekeeper speaks the "unspeakable" horrors. The play eliminates that Jamesian trick where the actual miseries of the characters' "small smothered [lives]" transmute into grotesque phantasms. The novella depicts the danger of intimations one won't or can't pursue, of desires that become terrifying because they've been buried alive. The play offers a simpler problem: Are the ghosts real or is the lady mad?

Presenting The Turn of the Screw as a potboiler, Hatcher maintains a clip that maximizes suspense. The play runs without an intermission, and all the action takes place against a gray, stone staircase that winds up one side of the stage and down the other: There's no escaping these Victorian confines no matter how many steps you take.

But the thinness of the characters hinders the play's progress. Jenny Lord's governess is a hysterical prig, her voice too strident and brittle for obsession. She denies her fixations the dignity that attaches to deep feeling, even when it's distorted or insane. Her lack of conviction drains power from the staging's central conundrum: Is or isn't the governess right to believe in ghosts? Darren Bridgett reduces the boy, the drama's compelling black hole, to an impudent twerp, his little belly permanently, intractably riding before him. Whether, on top of this, he's been messing around with ghosts and the governess' mind ends up beside the point.

In the last year or so, writers and directors have been cycling through James' work as if they didn't notice how it resists conversion to stage and screen. His stories are not mainly about what is seen, said, or understood -- though there is a good deal of posturing, talk, and analysis -- but about the unanswered or unasked questions that remain after it all. One way or another, those who attempt it tend to excise the James from their productions. Marin Theater Company's Turn of the Screw is no exception. It attacks subtleties with power tools.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

About This Play...
Sexual Perversity in Chicago. By David Mamet. Directed by Lori Glumac. Starring M. Jane Barrett, Brian Scott Clark, Elaine Jo Mello, and Douglas Sept. At the Jewel Theater, 655 Geary (at Jones), through Feb. 14. Call 567-3005.

It's a miracle of Hollywood hackwriting that David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago ever became a movie, because the original play has a pathetically slim plot. The story goes like this: Boy screws girl, boy and girl move in together, boy and girl bicker like husband and wife until girl moves out again. Curtain. The '80s movie version, About Last Night ..., churned this scenario into a long and colossally boring romantic comedy, but the play is compact and tight, masking the story's thinness with Mamet's bantering dialogue, and with a sense that Mamet has written about Contemporary Issues, in this case what it's like to be single just after the sexual revolution. The play is set -- or stuck -- in 1976; the production playing now at the Jewel Theater is a decent revival, in full '70s panoply, with at least two actors who can do justice to the dialogue. The opening lines are famous:

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?
DANNY: So?
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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