In July 1981, Ruth Elizabeth Davis (Carol Kane), an aging Golden Age Hollywood actress, sneaks into the home of an elderly couple in a seaside village in Maine, hiding out until after she has secured its purchase. Her plans are slightly altered when Minnie Bodine (Mickey Sumner), a young, naïve girl—the first to admit, in her thick, New England accent, that she’s a bit of a boob—stumbles into the house and slowly befriends her. Minnie thinks she recognizes Ruth, but isn’t “good with names” and can’t remember any of her pictures, though she is impressed when Ruth produces an Academy Award.
It isn’t until after intermission, when the star secretly realizes that Minnie isn’t quite what she claims to be, that Ruth Elizabeth transforms into “Bette” Davis. A second Oscar materializes on the piano. With her saucer eyes and uniquely hoarse but high-pitched voice, Ms. Kane sharpens her (literal) knives, ready to dig her (figurative) claws into Minnie. The ensuing game of who-is-the-cat, who-is-the-mouse is a delight to watch and especially powerful once Davis, less hurt by the betrayal than excited by the drama, realizes that, even in old age, she has found a new, delicious role. When she asks, “Do I look like someone who would kill an innocent person?” the star of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? does not seem to be asking a rhetorical question.
The Lying Lesson, Craig Lucas’ new revisionist play, works best in these moments, when Davis is in full diva mode. Minnie asks her, in the first act, who she played in Baby Jane. She replies, “I played the one who could act.” Pursuing the feud with the unnamed Joan Crawford, Minnie pries: “What did you do to her?” Davis, a veritable H.L. Mencken or George S. Kaufman, quip, “I said my lines in a convincing manner.” Unfortunately, by the end, Mr. Lucas veers the play away from comic thriller into a rather banal attempt at celebrity psychology. All of the monologues about sacrificing Ruth Elizabeth to “Bette” prove unenlightening, and we are treated with lines like, “Work: the one enduring romance of my life,” and, “People think actors lie. No: good actors observe and show what’s true.” Perhaps these kind of histrionics are true to the way Davis would have spoken, but they certainly don’t make for interesting theater.
Fortunately, director Pam MacKinnon has assembled two very good actors who maneuver through these awkward moments skillfully. Ms. Kane has the demeanor of a spoiled movie star—but one with so much damn talent that her bitchy behavior comes across as high standards. Just watching her light a cigarette seems like an event. Ms. Sumner, too, is absolutely wonderful, a perfectly low-keyed foil to Ms. Kane’s theatrics. Minnie’s lies are so blurred with her truths and Ms. Sumner rarely allows us to penetrate her character’s defensive front.
Last year, End of the Rainbow caused a small controversy among Judy Garland enthusiasts for its portrayal of their heroine. The Lying Lesson is unlikely to irk fans of Bette Davis, because it is more fanciful, less autobiographical, and ultimately, less raw, less naked. If Mr. Lucas had pulled back on his desire to deconstruct the legend, he would have had a terrific little fantasy. As it is, The Lying Lesson is a pleasant little misstep.