In an era when people willingly submit to being sliced, diced and liposuctioned on national TV, Willy Russell's play Educating Rita -- which inspired the 1983 film of the same name -- seems almost quaint. Because Rita, a London hairdresser, believes the only way her life can change is from the inside out.
Not that Rita isn't in need of a style overhaul. Kathleen Keenan, who plays the title role at Lost Nation, struts on stage in a succession of fashion flashbacks so garish it's like watching an '80s harbinger of "What Not to Wear." No wonder that Keenan has her costume assistants take a bow in the curtain call; they've got a lot to do.
But from the moment Rita bursts into the office of the professor who's going to tutor her, it's clear that even if she succeeds in improving both her mind and her wardrobe, she'll never lose her plucky common sense. Depending on your tolerance for plucky common sense, you may or may not want to stick around for the ride.
Stick around. Yes, the basic narrative arc is predictable: Student will learn and teacher will, too. But there are unexpected rewards along the way.
We know right away that Frank, the professor (Kim Bent), is a mess. He hides his liquor bottles alphabetically among the titles on his bookshelf, his marriage has failed, and his relationship with his girlfriend is failing. And he's lost his will to teach, even though the size of his office suggests the university is still treating him rather well. Robert William Wolff's beautifully detailed set may be too spacious; you kind of expect a broken-down prof like this one to be consigned to a rat-hole by the fire escape, not a big room with a view.
He's low enough on the totem pole, though, to have to tutor students in Open University, the British version of adult education. And he's not looking forward to the prospect of teaching Rita. Then he meets her and faces a different kind of problem: Because she's such an original, he worries that education will flatten her uniqueness.
Russell seems to share Frank's contempt for academics; they're represented by off-stage characters such as Trish, a young intellectual who inspires Rita but turns out to be a suicidal poseur. And the playwright, like his character, tends to romanticize the unlettered. Rita hasn't been in Frank's office for more than a few minutes before he's calling her a "breath of air." Later, her decision to leave her boorish husband Denny (another off-stage character) comes almost too easily: Learn a little English lit and, blammo, you've broken the chains of oppression!
Maybe we don't feel Rita's ties to her husband because Keenan hasn't explored them. The actors may also be partly to blame for the dead air when Frank outright flirts with Rita. The playwright doesn't go anywhere with these moments, and the actors don't, either. But no matter. Frank and Rita's most profound connection occurs when they talk about literature, and in these conversations Bent and Keenan shine.
Bent has the difficult task of playing a character who's usually morose, drunk or both. To his credit, he finds a variety of colors to play within that limited palette, shrugging away lines with sardonic aplomb. But there are faint glimmerings of hope in his eyes when he begins to get through to Rita. And then, when she starts to make connections between her own life and literature (Ibsen's Peer Gynt), he can hardly contain himself. He's a new man -- or maybe the man he used to be, up on his feet and rediscovering himself as a teacher.
And Rita's a new woman. She realizes, too, that she's made a breakthrough, and she goes over to Frank and says slyly, "Aren't you clever?" Keenan makes the line both wondering and playful. Throughout the play, she subtly evokes Rita's changing persona -- from eager novice to literary name-dropper to educated woman -- without resorting to caricature. And that's a feat when you're wearing leopard prints and polka dots. (Costume designer Allison Parrish clearly had a blast.)
The fact that Bent and Keenan are a couple in real life, not to mention co-artistic directors of Lost Nation, likely has a lot to do with their easy rapport in this production. Director Jana Tift deserves credit, too, for its comic spark. The evening has its longueurs: The play, divided into multiple small scenes spread over two acts, begins to feel redundant after a while, particularly since most of the scenes cover similar territory. But, by and large, Frank and Rita are a pleasant pair with whom to while away a couple of hours. And they'll make you feel a whole lot better about the world than an episode of "Extreme Makeover."