Educating Rita is a pithy, nicely crafted work with a bit more on its mind than might meet an eye bent on the burgeoning affection of its two characters and where that's headed. Russell, the author of Shirley Valentine and the long-running London musical Blood Brothers, is something of a Rita figure himself - an ex-hairdresser who pulled himself up by the bootstraps of night school (though he did not matriculate at the UK's famously egalitarian Open University, which was founded in 1969). And the debate over literary criticism versus "the common reader" has been going on since Samuel Johnson first gave a shout-out to the latter in 1779. Still, the play, with its dawn-of-feminism ambiance (including a paean to Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle) and its not-quite-platonic flirtation between teacher and student, hardly seems worth reviving in this post-Oleanna age.
That said, the Huntington production, snappily directed by Britisher Maria Aitken (The 39 Steps), ably evokes pampered, insulated, slightly threadbare English academe. Allen Moyer's set, with its row upon row of worn books shelved before half-empty bottles, has a grandiose if lived-in look. And the boots, minis, and velvety granny frocks designed by Nancy Brennan and sported by Jane Pfitsch's pert Rita are adorable. Moreover, the piece is well played by the Reese Witherspoon–ish Pfitsch, who blossoms with her character from a clenched sexiness to a casual confidence that can survive even her cheerleader's rendition of a speech from Macbeth. Equally fine is Andrew Long, whose appearance suggests Michael Caine after a week in the same suit and whose wry ease trumps both Frank's self-depreciation and his erudition. I just kept wishing that, after navigating for Rita the mysteries of William Blake, E.M. Forster, and Chekhov, he'd introduce her to Hemingway. I'd love to hear what our blunt English working girl would say about Papa's endless international pub crawl in the wake of Lady Brett Ashley.
, Theater, Huntington Theatre Company, Ernest Hemingway, More