‘Plaza Suite’ and Other Broadway Revivals Glimpse Our Theatrical Past

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For “American Buffalo,” which opened on Broadway in 1977, Mamet devised a theatrical equivalent to the harshly evocative visuals of those films. It’s the language of dominance that gives depth to his characters: a junk shop owner, his poker buddy and a dim assistant. (In this season’s revival, directed by Neil Pepe, they are played by Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss.) As the three plan to rob a customer of a valuable coin, Mamet endows their pettiness with an almost Shakespearean grandeur, deploying a vulgar vernacular that sounds like blank verse after a year in the sewer.

For all its linguistic invention, there’s nothing formally unconventional about “American Buffalo”; in fact, it’s almost classical. Nor is the topic new. But in the next decades, thanks in part to the continued progress of feminism and liberation, playwrights were able to put formerly taboo subjects center stage without having to sensationalize them. At the same time, the naturalism that had dominated mainstream American theater since the ’50s began to loosen its grip.

“How I Learned to Drive,” by Paula Vogel, exemplifies both parts of that change. Its subject is the sexual molestation, starting at age 11, of a girl called Li’l Bit by her Uncle Peck. From there the play reaches out in many unexpected directions, including Li’l Bit’s ambivalence about (and her family’s complicity in) the abuse. These remain shocking today.

But it is also narratively inventive, drawing on elements of all the theatrical movements that came before it. Explicitly acknowledging its own form, as “The Skin of Our Teeth” did, it is narrated by Li’l Bit as a memory, yet the sequence is nonchronological; a Greek chorus comments on the action and plays the secondary roles. The connections among scenes are the kind you find not in neat outlines but in dreams.

One result of that ethereal quality is that “How I Learned to Drive” resists conclusions, leaving it open to reinvention. You can imagine the roles being played by anyone, regardless even of age — and indeed, this spring’s production reassembles the director (Mark Brokaw) and stars (Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse) of the play’s 1997 premiere. How will a story about the meaning of maturity change now that its leading actors are 25 years older?

“How I Learned to Drive” is the only one of this season’s revivals that has not previously appeared on Broadway. (It originally played Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater.) Yet it’s undoubtedly a classic; a commercial production will not be the test of its longevity. But for newer works, like Richard Greenberg’s 2002 “Take Me Out,” a first Broadway revival is in part a chance to see if there is likely to be a second.

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