If you ever wondered what really happened to Baby Jane, Craig Lucas offers one theory in his new play The Lying Lesson, a suspense thriller that holds little suspense and no thrills but gives Carol Kane a chance to do her imitation of Bette Davis.
The play, being staged by the Atlantic Theater Company under Pam MacKinnon's direction, is set in a house on the coast of Maine in 1981. A storm is dumping buckets of rain outside. There is a startling clap of thunder, and a little old lady enters rolling a suitcase and calling out for the people she expects to be there to greet her, but no one is home. There is another crashing burst of thunder and lightning, and the lights go out.
Fortunately the playwright has called for a couple of candles to be left out conveniently on the kitchen table, so the audience is not in the dark for long. The little old lady locks the doors, grabs a butcher knife, and curls up on the couch. She no sooner settles in than there is a rattle at the kitchen door, then a window over the sink opens and an intruder crawls in. That's about it for the suspense.
The intruder turns out to be a young local woman who says she is a caretaker for the house. The little old lady turns out to be Bette Davis, though that piece of information is teased out in some rather forced dialogue in which the local, whose name is Minnie, claims not only that she's never seen any of the star's movies, but hasn't even heard the name Bette Davis. If that seems far-fetched, one need only recall the play's title.
If you are wondering what Davis is doing on the coast of Maine, she says she is there to buy the house and look up an old heartthrob who used to work at the local five-and-dime. It would be unfair to recount much more of the plot, slim as it is, except to say that Minnie has an agenda of her own.
The Lying Lesson is mainly a paean to Davis, especially the macabre movies she made, but seems a half-hearted one at that. There are references to the Robert Aldrich films "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" and "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" sprinkled throughout and a few digs at Davis's co-stars, Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland thrown in.
Lucas has a distinguished list of credits that include the plays Reckless, Prelude to a Kiss, and the book to the musical Light in the Piazza. He also has written screenplays, opera libretti, and a scenario for a ballet. The Lying Lesson, however, seems more like an idea for a play than a finished work.
The estimable Kane, always a pleasure to see on stage or screen, gives a fair impersonation of Davis, though she has a habit of widening her eyes like saucers, as though she is having a problem with a contact or perhaps just trying to stay awake. Or maybe only to emulate those celebrated Bette Davis eyes.
Mickey Sumner, who is building a resume on both sides of the Atlantic, is simply miscast as Mickey, even if she maintains a plausible Maine accent through most of the play. MacKinnon keeps her cast of two moving back and forth between living room and kitchen, smoking and drinking, in an effort to create some semblance of action.