The Lying Lesson

What is it about Maine?

If you base your knowledge of the Pine Tree State solely on film and fiction, you might imagine that lurking just beneath its New England seaside serenity is a horrifying netherworld of murder and madness. Stephen King, after all, sets most of his novels there, while Todd Fields plundered the streets and woods to chilling effect for In the Bedroom, his cinematic revenge tale. And when the lights come up on a Maine living room at the Atlantic Theater, with a loud thunderclap and a flicker of lightning, you'll be forgiven for expecting just such a macabre tale. After all, the power has gone out, and our knife-wielding heroine will soon be screaming at a suspicious intruder who climbed in through the window. If it's not quite King territory, then maybe we're about to watch the theatrical counterpart of yet another Maine classic, TV's "Murder She Wrote?"

No, alas, we're not. The intrusion is settled quickly, and what follows is Craig Lucas's strangely inert two-character play, THE LYING LESSON. It's 1981, and the lady with the knife, it turns out, is none other than Bette Davis, the indefatigable star taking a respite from her dwindling film career to purchase this modest house, which used to belong to an old lover. The intruder, a young woman named Minnie, is the house's designated caretaker, and the look of her is certainly harmless enough. In fact, Minnie doesn't recognize Davis, or even know who she is, all of which is music to the ears of Bette, who soon takes her on, probationally, as an assistant.

Except, wait: why did Minnie already know how to make Bette's favorite cocktail? And why, despite a hardscrabble story of abuse and disappointment, does she sound so cloyingly naive in the presence of this towering movie star? Could it be that not everything is as it seems?

You might be gathering that the central mystery of THE LYING LESSON is really not so mysterious after all, and it's not enough to sustain two hours of theater. What emerges instead is a sedate drama about two women of different generations coming to terms with their pasts and futures. But such stuff is all too familiar, and it never adds up to a compelling contrast. Bette's tales of Hollywood--- accompanied by photographs, postcards, and even one of her Oscar statuettes--- are sketched in the broadest biographical terms, and while she's an imposing figure, Lucas has short-changed her with a fairly low-stakes memory play. Minnie has even less of a raison d'être, except as a foil for Bette, and you quickly grow tired of her ingratiating personality.

The wonderful Carol Kane, as Bette, wisely avoids impersonation, and she's conjured up a fairly compelling vision of a woman for whom self-preservation is a learned necessity. Kane's pixie-like vocal tone is so distinctive that you'll never really mistake her for the star of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "All About Eve," but that's not really the point; she gets at Davis's essence in both physique and bearing. Mickey Sumner, making her off-Broadway debut as Minnie, bites down a bit too hard on her character's conflicting motivations, and is never really able to match Kane in style or substance. The straightforward direction is by Pam MacKinnon.

For theatergoers drawn to slow-burn Hollywood nostalgia, THE LYING LESSON is not without its pleasures. But too often, it feels less like a closeup on a legendary artist, and more like a dutiful trip to grandma's house on a rainy Saturday: you've heard the stories before, the jokes are hokey, and the pictures look poignantly faded.