Craig Lucas's thoroughly enjoyable new play THE LYING LESSON begins like a horror movie. A deafening thunderstorm knocks out the power as an elderly lady who bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Bette Davis comes into a house in a small town in Maine. The lady who is, as it turns out, is Bette Davis, crouches on the floor with a butcher knife in her hand as an intruder comes through the kitchen window. We seem to be in a version of one of Davis's gothic later movies, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE or HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE. However, this Bette Davis is not a demented camp figure and the intruder is not Joan Crawford (or "that former prostitute" as Davis calls her), or Olivia de Haviland, but a tall, gangly young woman. From then on, the play gives us the twists and turns of Bette's relationship with this mysterious young woman. Bette may think of herself as a consummate actress, but Minnie Bodine is a pretty good actress herself. To Bette, Minnie's subterfuges aren't acting, they're lying, but what's the difference, and when is Bette acting?
THE LYING LESSON, thank, God, is not one of those over-the-top pseudo biographies of the latter days of a camp icon like Peter Quilter's treatment, or should I say exploitation, of Judy Garland in last season's END OF THE RAINBOW. Yes, there are some details of Davis's life thrown in, but the focal character is Minnie, the young woman who would like to escape miserable small town life as Davis did, but doesn't know how. Craig Lucas's version of Davis is a shrewd woman who doesn't quite know what she wants at this stage of her life and who thinks she wants to go back to where it all began. It is 1981 and even Davis's gothic classics are well in the past. Who is she when she's not a star?
THE LYING LESSON certainly isn't one of the best plays I have ever seen, but it is an entertaining, absorbing play brought to life by two fine actresses. Veteran Carol Kane does not try to "do" Bette Davis. She uses some of Davis's mannerisms, but this is a dramatic character, not an imitation. In fact, Kane's Bette is much less camp, much more restrained, than Davis ever was. It's a superb performance. Minnie is Mickey Sumner's debut role and she is fascinating. As with her recent production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, Pam McKinnon has kept the play grounded in the fictional reality of these characters' motivations, objectives and interactions. There's never a false moment. Even the stormy opening doesn't seem hokey. Neil Patel has created a suitably shabby setting. The house Bette is occupying is part of what's at stake in the play and it is both substantial and an unlikely home for even a fading movie star who is worried about money.
THE LYING LESSON, Atlantic Theatre Company Linda Gross Theatre. March 16, 2013.