For much of the two acts Craig Lucas devotes to The Lying Lesson, his new and immensely disappointing two-hander at the Atlantic's Linda Gross Theater, what he's getting at is bizarrely unclear.
The audience has watched Bette Davis (Carol Kane) arrive at a house she's thinking of buying on the Maine coast in the summer of 1981. (The set is Neil Patel's and is rightly serviceable as a serviceable home.) It's a dark and stormy night, and at first Davis is startled by the arrival through an unlocked window of a young woman calling herself Minnie Bodine (Mickey Sumner). Not to worry. Over the course of the next day or so Minnie turns into an eager gal Friday to the star.
Seeming to be in no special pickle and only occasionally emitting a Bette Davis wisecrack (Joan Crawford is the victim of a few, Miriam Hopkins only one), Davis contemplates whether to go through with the purchase while puttering in the kitchen like a typical homemaker. Minnie continues helping while claiming she had no idea who Davis is other than the lady about to buy the place from a couple mentioned as Francis and Edna -- Francis apparently an old Davis friend and Edna a possible rival.
Begging patron indulgence through uninvolving business for about two hours (including a 10-minute intermission), Lucas gets to his point at the final black-out. Well, whadya know? It's a punchline that might have worked effectively to end a SNL sketch. Beyond that, no. The reveal won't be given away here for anyone who actually cares about this waste of ticket-buyers' money and time.
Suffice it to say, the gag (no pun intended, or maybe it is) has to do with one, maybe even two, of Davis's best-known roles. They'll be recognizable to audience members who know who Davis was and are familiar with her oeuvre. Anyone who isn't will have no clue to the final image of Davis -- identified in the program as Ruth Elizabeth, the name given her at birth and who she claimed to be when off-screen -- and Minnie standing side by side with lighted cigarettes.
All right, all right, it may be that Lucas does have a larger message to pass along. He could be trying to observe that acting fame inevitably obliterates an actor's natural self, her off-screen persona. Actors, having committed the lie of playing characters other than themselves, may want to be seen as themselves when not at work, but it's unlikely to happen--at least not easily. But if this is Lucas's intention, The Lying Lesson isn't the way to realize it.
Incidentally, wielding a cigarette is one of the standard gestures Davis impersonators employ, and here Kane includes it regularly. Undoubtedly Lucas requires it in stage directions and director Pam MacKinnon seconds the motions. Kane also gets the Davis walk down and many of the often-mocked mannerisms and inflections, although she never has to blast "Petah! Petah! Petah!"
In her quite good Ilona Somogyi wardrobe and quite good Charles LaPointe wig, however, Kane goes wrong on the Northeast accent, sounding more like an eastern European émigré than the original ever did. Sumner -- tall, gangly, blond, making a New York City debut -- is okay, but considering the thankless role, who could say more about her abilities?
For the record, there's a point in the pointless proceedings when Davis is unpacking belongings shipped prematurely by someone assuming the house is definitely in Davis's name. From one of the boxes, the star pulls an Oscar (or convincing facsimile). But hold the phone, movie lovers. Where's the other one? Davis won two, of course -- for Dangerous and Jezebel but not, as some might think from Lucas's wobbly exegesis, for All About Eve.