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Revival of 'How I Learned to Drive'

Two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz and

Two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz and Emmy Award nominee Elizabeth Reaser in Off-Broadway production of Paula Vogel's " How I Learned to Drive" at Second Stage Theatre. Credit: Tim Klein

Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive," which earned the Pulitzer in 1998, remains a shimmery testament to the rich and rocky humanness of contradictory emotions.

How could this be, we wondered then and wonder again during the fine revival at Second Stage Theatre. How could we feel such sympathy alongside the revulsion for Uncle Peck, the pedophile uncle of smart and nubile young Li'l Bit in a small-town Maryland clan that nicknames its family members for their genitalia?

How can a coming-of-age forbidden-love story about this increasingly timely taboo be so forgiving yet so disturbing, so frisky but so dark, so vulgar and still so delicate?

People who saw the original may well miss some of Mary Louise Parker's layers of innocence and confidence or David Morse's seductive authority in this production.

But Norbert Leo Butz (best known for his Tony-winning musical breakouts) plays Uncle Peck with enormous openhearted duplicity -- a sad, cute, nerdy man not above preying on even more vulnerable relatives than his wife's niece. And Elizabeth Reaser (the matriarch in the "Twilight" movies) convincingly toggles between big-breasted, tight-jean pubescent curiosity and toughened maturity as Li'l Bit, who begins her story by saying to us, "Sometimes to tell a secret you have to teach a lesson."

In Vogel's brilliantly constructed 90-minute memory play, that lesson is playfully presented by labeled lesson plans of Peck teaching Li'l Bit to drive through the years. With a realistic classic car (I'm guessing '60 Chevy Bel Air) as background to the set's otherwise stylized rural landscape, Li'l Bit's sexual and automotive education is interrupted by absurd comic lectures by her cartoon-libidinous elders.

Kate Whoriskey, who staged "Ruined," the devastating Pulitzer drama about female mutilation in Africa, may not have the lightest touch with these robust heehaw scenes. But the director honors the jagged corners of the play with faithful sobriety and absurdity.

When the play first opened, Vogel said she was writing "about the gifts from people who have hurt us." Her work, with all its hurt and humor, is also a gift.

WHAT "How I Learned to Drive"

WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., Manhattan

INFO $75; 212-246-4422; 2st.com

BOTTOM LINE Welcome revival of daring, sympathetic look at pedophilia

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