If you’ve ever wanted to see Bette Davis eyes, look no further than Carol Kane’s in The Lying Lesson, Craig Lucas’ lukewarm potboiler at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater. As a past-her-prime Davis in 1981, Kane has mastered the disarming, dangerous gaze that seduced legions of mid-20th-century moviegoers and inspired the Grammy-winning Kim Carnes song.
Of course, the Emmy-winning Taxi actress was blessed with some extraordinary eyes of her own. But just as there’s more to the silver-screen legend than her extraordinarily expressive eyes, there’s more to Lucas’ new play than a credible Bette Davis portrayal. A bioplay this is not. For proof, see Lucas’ author’s note: ”This play is a damn lie.”
The Lying Lesson is actually a curious hybrid of thriller — cue the lightning, power failure, and haphazard wielding of a kitchen knife — and buddy comedy. Bette, who calls herself Ruth Elizabeth (her birth name), pulls the knife on Minnie (a charmingly gawky Mickey Sumner), a self-professed numbskull of a local girl who ”breaks” into Davis’ shoddily decorated coastal Maine house and ends up bringing her such sundries as ice and Johnnie Walker. The star shows her gratitude by sharing her sociological views (”I have nothing against gay liberation, but ‘What is in it for me?”’), discussing her Oscar competitors (”Ginger Rogers my left tit!”), and cooking a heavily symbolic goose dinner.
But scenes don’t zing and crackle as they could. It’s not the words; Lucas can be damn funny. And after ambitious but overstuffed recent works like The Singing Forest and Prayer for My Enemy, it’s a relief to see him return to the loopy comic style of earlier plays such as Reckless and Prelude to a Kiss. But something is dragging down the dialogue. Director Pam MacKinnon’s too-deliberate pacing? Sumner’s chowdah-thick accent? As Davis’ Margo Channing warns in All About Eve, it’s going to be a bumpy night. C+
(Tickets: TicketCentral.com or 212-279-4200)