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Tripped by its own intentional distaste

Few current playwrights have attracted as much acclaim as Paula Vogel. Her works have become staples at theaters around the country, despite themes and topics that mass audiences might find distasteful.

Tampa Bay area audiences have had a chance to sample her work in productions of The Baltimore Waltz, Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief and The Mineola Twins. Now comes Hat Trick Theater's staging of her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama How I Learned to Drive.

As with most of her other plays, it's unusual in style and structure. And as with some of her other plays, it's bewildering. Drive centers around the long-term sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and his underage niece. Its heavy-handed metaphor has him giving her driving lessons at the same time he's seducing her.

Vogel has said her goal was to write a play about pedophilia in which the audience had equal empathy for the adult and the child. This production does garner that divided sense of allegiance. The victim, nicknamed L'il Bit (played effectively by Jonelle Meyer), seems somewhat to blame for encouraging the advances. The molester, Uncle Peck (played simply and successfully by Bob Gonzalez), seems like a pretty decent guy, if you can overlook that he's a pedophile.

But there's a big "so what?" element. It's not clear why Vogel wants us to like Uncle Peck, or why she even wants to show us this situation, or why she introduces us to L'il Bit's repulsive family (represented by a three-person Greek chorus), which revels in inappropriate sexual comments and behavior. If Vogel has anything to say about them, it's not apparent. As a result, the play comes up as exceedingly creepy but nonetheless feckless.

Because Vogel and the play are so acclaimed, it's tempting to place the blame on the production. But some of Vogel's other works have a similar air of intellectual detachment, a sense of self-conscious cleverness (as in Desdemona, a strange take on Othello) and the same joy in presenting distasteful topics for no apparent reason (Baltimore Waltz has characters drinking urine). Vogel seems more interested in seeing what she can get away with than in trying to affect the audience.

So despite appealing performances (the leads plus April Bender, Kyle Porter and Jamie Delgatti), an interesting structure (a grown L'il Bit traces the relationship through vignettes that skip around in time) and a shocking theme, How I Learned to Drive ends up having little emotional impact.


How I Learned to Drive

Through Dec. 17 at the Silver Meteor Gallery, 2213 E Sixth Ave., Ybor City. 8 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. $14. (813) 833-6368; Note: Adult content.