Romantic plays of earlier eras place their protagonists in conflict with a rigid socioeconomic system in which Father is always presumed to know best and of which the bartered bride is the ultimate emblem. Will Strip comes from that same tradition, only it removes the patriarch and places the women's destinies in their own hands. With the exception of a club owner or a pimp along the way, these women pretty much do their own bartering, becoming both product and vendor in a more or less open market. Every lap dance is an arranged marriage of sorts, a one-way romance, the consequences of which are numbing for both partners.
But the most striking similarity between Drive and Strip is their dogged determination to refrain from judging the behaviors, or the taboos, with which they grapple -- or rather, to hold a variety of judgments in balance. This quasi-journalistic impartiality turns the theater into a kind of courtroom, goading us to confront our own moral wiring, our tolerance for -- in Vogel's play for instance -- a 40-year-old man who tweaks his little niece's nipples while, in other circumstances, treating her with admirable maturity and compassion. By much the same token, Will Strip confronts our feelings toward women who choose to strip, and men who pay to watch them do it. And what if one of these fellows has a wife who's been dying of AIDS for a year, and he breaks down weeping from guilt and grief in the middle of a lap dance?
Yet for all their common connective tissue, the styles of these plays couldn't be more contrary. How I Learned has the folksy appeal of A Prairie Home Companion, which goes a way toward explaining its Pulitzer Prize, its Obie award and the dozens of productions in regional theaters across the land; while Will Strip is a theme and variation on David Rabe's gritty 1986 In the Boom Boom Room. Under Mark Brokaw's staging of How I Learned, Molly Ringwald (playing the niece, Li'l Bit) depicts undressing for Uncle Peck (Brian Kerwin) in the abstract, with stylization and without shedding her undergarments. (In one scene of lascivious groping, the actors sit on opposite sides of the stage, each facing forward.) Whereas in the comparatively realistic Will Strip, the actors take it off, and put it back on, and take it off again. Between topless dances around a metal pole, they proffer childhood memories and ruminations about the men who pay for the privilege of masturbating before them in a private booth, or the ones who have their bodies shaved sans lather, or enjoy being flogged. At times, it feels as though director John Difusco is banking on the performers' randy dialogue and nude gyrations to sell tickets, while at the same time making a philosophical point about exploitation. All this flesh-flashing, more redundant than titillating, ultimately subverts the tease -- which may or may not be Difusco's intent. His closing tableau, a smoky, glittery sculpture of the nude quintet, derives from the contemporary myth of the stripper goddess, which in turn harks further back to pagan legend. This late in the proceedings, however, those sacred female forms have been de-eroticized by overexposure, and come to resemble mannequins in a shop window.
It's the last of at least three possible endings. A far better one occurs about 20 minutes earlier, when Bates, describing her young son's anguish over the realization that cattle are slaughtered for the sake of her leather coat, offers a prayer for the boy's future -- followed by a manic strip. Now, that's gutsy.
SET MOSTLY THROUGH THE '60S IN MARYLAND (though there's an oddly '50s tone to both Jess Goldstein's costumes and David Van Tieghem's sound design), How I Learned To Drive has almost nothing to do with economics. Rather, through a series of sketches that span a decade or so and are deliberately out of sequence, it chronicles a love story between Li'l Bit and her surrogate father, Uncle Peck, who, yes, teaches her literally and metaphorically how to drive.
They have a compact. She will show up to meet with him if he refrains from drinking. And although he's true to his word, this is the same man who takes clandestine photos of her in his basement, undoing just the top button of her sweater after she insists on keeping all her clothes on. When he fesses up that he intends holding on to the photos for future submission to Playboy, she recoils, refusing even to look into the camera. "I love you," he blurts out at a strategic moment. She spins on her chair and glares at him. Seconds later, the sweater falls away. With a remarkable economy of language, there emerges a stage picture of exploitation and vulnerability, of love and neediness on the part of both man and child. It is both romantic and depraved.
Were this a network-TV drama, the moral cards would be obviously stacked on one side or another: Uncle Peck would be a generic creep, Li'l Bit a mere victim -- or perhaps a wrongful accuser who destroys his innocent life. In Brokaw's staging, however, Li'l Bit is a study in wilting resolve. She says no, means yes, and may be too young to know the difference. It takes her 18 years to finally make up her mind, and the cost to Peck is devastating.
Kerwin's dynamism and charm temper Peck's cagey abuse of the girl. Ringwald's performance is more perfunctory. She's stiff, ill-equipped to handle the sweeping style of direct audience address demanded of her, although her awkwardness serves her well in the more intimate, cinematic scenes.
Ringwald and Kerwin are the only actors in the five-member ensemble who don't double as other characters. Li'l Bit's mother (Johanna Day), grandmother (Rona Benson) and grandfather (Justin Hagan) also serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the action that plays out on set designer Narelle Sissons' stage, bare save for a few rudimentary items of portable furniture -- all framed by a proscenium of road-map motifs.
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The play's moral neutrality toward its incendiary theme is perhaps its greatest appeal, and has led people to mistake it for a great play. Rather, it's a pretty good play with a few great scenes. But it's hampered by just as many generic ones -- Li'l Bit in the school shower, for instance, cringing as her classmates gape at her prodigious breasts. The writing in many of her "dates" on the road with Uncle Peck is also rather too familiar and obvious. Were these scenes not sparked by flickers of incest and pedophilia, they wouldn't even sustain our interest. Which makes How I Learned To Drive rather like Lolita for the tourist class, like surfing over a torrent rather than plunging into it. Nabokov it ain't.
WILL STRIP FOR FOOD | Written and performed by BETH BATES, CHRISTINA BEBES, SERA GAMBLE,
ANGIE GIBBS and RAELLE TUCKER | At GLAXA STUDIOS 3707 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake | Through March 13
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE | By PAULA VOGEL | At the MARK
TAPER FORUM | 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through April 14
The 20th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, with Circle X Theater Company, the cast of Naked Boys Singing!, Chris Wells, Karen Finley, Pasadena Shakespeare Company and others, will be held at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, on Monday, April 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.); reception to follow. The posting of nominees can be found online at www.laweekly.com. Admission for all nominees plus one guest is free; for all others, $12. All queries and RSVPs can be made on the Awards hot line: (323) 993-3693. Please make checks payable to L.A. Weekly c/o Lisa Yu, 6715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Checks must be received by April 4.