NEW YORK — Norbert Leo Butz, you might say, has switched gears completely, going from a goofy, glitzy musical in which he plays an FBI agent to a harrowing play where he's definitely on the other side of the law.
Butz, who won a Tony Award last season for "Catch Me If You Can," can lately be found playing a middle-aged man lusting after his much-younger niece in a revival of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "How I Learned to Drive."
Butz, who stars opposite a working-hard-but-struggling Elizabeth Reaser of "Twilight" fame, is clearly the best thing in this otherwise limp production, which opened Monday off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre.
The production, to use its central metaphor, never really gets out of neutral. It centers on the troubling relationship between a teenager called Li'l Bit and her 40-something uncle nicknamed Uncle Peck, who both teaches her to drive and molests her over a series of scenes that skip forward and back in time, highlighting the unreliable nature of memory and affection.
The car is the central motif, and Derek McLane's scenic design puts one smack on stage, even if often just two chairs are used. Cars serve as both the location of the abuse and the vehicles by which Li'l Bit later runs away from the memories, pushing the metaphorical gas and flooring it.
The abuse begins in 1962, when Li'l Bit is 11. "That day was the last day I lived in my body. I retreated above the neck," she tells the audience. It should be a devastating line, but it doesn't really land.
Part of the problem is that Reaser, who is 36, must channel her inner teen — she mostly hangs around the 13-18 age range. That's a tall task for anyone, much less a svelte beauty who wears a padded bra to play Vogel's "well-endowed" heroine. The production loses any shock value by having a stunning, older woman opposite Uncle Peck, who is only eight years older than his co-star.
One of Reaser's best scenes is when she becomes a seducer herself to a younger man she meets on the bus years after her abuse has ended. "Oh, this is the allure," she says. "Being older. Being the first. Being the translator, the teacher, the epicure, the already jaded. This is how the giver gets taken."
The timing of the revival — the play makes its first New York City appearance since its world premiere 15 years ago — feels oddly exploitative, though no one can be blamed for the coincidence of having it staged during a fresh wave of child molestation headlines.
The five-person cast, earnestly directed by Kate Whoriskey, also includes Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan and Marnie Schulenburg in a variety of smaller roles, ranging from family members to singing doo-wop to announcing scene labels lifted from driving manuals like "You and the Reverse Gear," which feel gimmicky very quickly.
Regan does a fantastic job as Aunt May in a monologue about drinking and in another when she acknowledges "I know what's going on" between her niece and her husband. But Cahoon struggles to be both a grandfather and later a teenager.
The family scenes ultimately add little light to what is happening in the car every week and an intriguing theme of urbanization — paving over the wildness — that the playwright raises at the beginning is soon abandoned.
One of Butz best moments is a scene that only he's in — a flashback in which he teaches an unseen cousin to fish, a form of child grooming that is as subtle as it is horrifying. "I don't want you to feel ashamed about crying. I'm not going to tell anyone, OK? I can keep secrets," he says. Uncle Peck is reeling in more than a fish here.
But why Uncle Peck is like this is never fully explained, though there are allusions that he may have been abused as a child or that something happened to him during World War II, something "burrowed deeper than the scar tissue." Even monsters deserve better.
Vogel's most truthful moments are when she explores the give-and-take between victim and abuser, the gray area that shows Li'l Bit encouraging her uncle's attention and his genuine fondness for her as a young woman. That leaves the audience feeling even more uncomfortable.
Somehow, Butz makes his monster into a semimonster — sympathetic, guilt-ridden, delusional, supportive and yet hopeless. He is, in a strange way, the best thing and the worst thing in Li'l Bit's life — a respectful lover who encourages her studies but also a dirty old man who unclips her bra when she's still a preteen.
"Someone will get hurt," warns Li'l Bit at one point during the molestation. But by the end of this play, it's pretty clear that Uncle Peck may actually be the most hurt, though he leaves plenty of pain in his wake.