How I Learned to Drive

by Paula Vogel

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Critical Overview

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Critics have appreciated How I Learned to Drive since it was first produced in 1997, with general praise that only intensified when the play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Writing about the original production at the Vineyard Theater, off-Broadway, Robert L. Daniels wrote in Variety that Vogel "paints a richly poetic and picturesque landscape,'' referring to the way that the playwright uses words to show things that cannot be presented on the stage. Daniels credited Vogel with her ability to deal with pedophilia in a way that was not distracting or off-putting, noting, "The play is a potent and convincing comment on a taboo subject, and its impact sneaks up on its audience.’’ Stefan Kanfer, writing for the New Leader about the same off-Broadway production, found excellence all around: "Still," his review ended, after praise for the cast members, costumer, and scenarist, ‘‘as fine as these professionals are, the star of the evening remains Paula Vogel, a playwright who never gives in to the obvious. . . . Vogel is a major talent waiting for a big theater to display her wares.’’ Kanfer's praise is built on the observation that, by 1997, the subject of incest was a familiar one on television and print. This review credits Vogel with being able to find something new in the material and presenting it with such style. "If How I Learned to Drive focused only on this roiled relationship it would still be an outstanding effort,’’ Kanfer wrote. ‘‘But Vogel exhibits more than a talent for clinical analysis. She has also composed a comedy of bad manners, with a series of memorable riffs.'' Kanfer goes on to quote the ‘‘Mother's guide to social drinking’’ speech, which several reviewers referred to when discussing the play's humorous tone.

When Laurie Stone reviewed the play for the Nation, she acknowledged the acting, calling David Morse's Peck "brilliant" and observing of Mary Louise Parker's performance that ‘‘with her rabbit twitchiness, [she] seamlessly embodies a child whose nose sniffs for the hustle, the grope.’’ Still, her review is mainly concentrated on Vogel's ability to carefully balance the complex psychology of the central relationship. ‘‘In this weirdly captivating play,’’ Stone wrote:

Vogel admits the psychological toll of intergenera-tional sex and the immorality of exploiting the weakness of children, but she stands apart from the advocates of victims' rights who don't grant the erotic allure of such connection—a given of our sexual natures, though one that responsible adults limit to fantasy. Perversion, Drive says, isn't in acts and wishes but in burying a piece of truth where it can leap out hungrily.

How I Learned to Drive remained in New York for over a year. After it received the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, it expanded to theaters across the country, as well as to places as diverse as Japan, Scandinavia, Germany, and South Africa. With her newfound fame, Vogel was able to take an extended leave from her teaching job and to concentrate on writing. Although there has not been much time to see what she can do to match the success of this play, it is clear that, at least in the short-term, she is not locked into following the award-winning formula but instead is exercising her creativity and branching out with new styles. She has been commissioned for an historical Christmas drama and for a screen treatment of How I Learned to Drive, which has yet to be produced.

Vogel followed How I Learned to Drive with The Mineola Twins in 1999. It is a comic, camp vehicle that uses clichéd; characterizations and settings while it follows two twins, one good and one evil, through the Republican administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan. While this play touched upon social extremes, it was not nearly as serious about its subject matter as its predecessor. Charles Isherwood, writing in Variety, called The Mineola Twins "a bright cartoon of a play'' and took time to mention the earlier play by comparison: ‘‘It certainly lacks the depth and complexity of Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, but its go-for-broke adventurousness is endearing, and it's a divinely funny vehicle for [its star].’’

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism