Friday, April 01, 2011

A Formulaic Commercial Vehicle

Last weekend, Joshua and I attended a performance of Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita” at Huntington Theatre Company.

“Educating Rita” is a formulaic commercial vehicle—and not a particularly strong one—but the play undoubtedly “works”. I suspect the play “works” because its two characters make evolutions of sorts during the course of the play—and, further, I suspect the play “works” because good actors can make something of its two roles.

I had seen two previous stage productions of “Educating Rita”, and both Josh and I had seen the movie, so there was no uncharted territory for us to explore. We nonetheless enjoyed seeing the actors go through their paces. It was a worthwhile afternoon.

The actor portraying Frank was excellent. He was much better than the actress portraying Rita, who tried a little too hard all afternoon to show Rita’s Pygmalion-like development from hairdresser to woman with intellectual pretensions and middle-class aspirations.

“Educating Rita”, premiered in 1980, resembles nothing so much as a 1970s British television comedy. It is one part earnest, one part pretentious, one part canned laugh lines, one part situation comedy—and one part examination of Britain’s class system, more entrenched in the 1970s than it was to become after the Thatcher reforms.

I am surprised the play has endured—and I am equally surprised that I have bothered to attend a performance three times. The New York Times described “Educating Rita” as “the perfect play about literature for anyone who wouldn’t dream of actually reading books”, and that assessment was spot-on.

“Educating Rita” has never enjoyed a Broadway production, although it has been presented Off-Broadway. Austin Pendleton performed the role of Frank in the original Off-Broadway production, which had a very short run.

The actress who portrayed Rita in the movie, Julie Walters, was the first stage Rita (in London). In fact, the role of Rita was largely responsible for jumpstarting Walters’s career, limited as it has been.

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