Educating RIta slipped through with a low profile during its short run at the Larry L. King stage at Austin Playhouse. That off-key, self-effacing approach seems typical of big Michael Stuart, the show's director and the male lead in this two-person production. He did something similar in last summer's theatre off season, sharing the Austin Playhouse stage with Zeb West in David Mamet's A Life In the Theatre.
Stuart can do that because within the season subscribers to his home-base theatre, the Austin Playhouse, there is a goodly number of admirers for this man's gentle, rumpled humor. He doesn't have to advertise. For love of Stuart they queue up to fill the seats in that space, which serves literally as a sideshow to the much more extensive Austin Playhouse season.
The 1983 film with Michael Caine may reside somewhere within your memory, so you're probably aware that this is the story of a distracted, rueful university professor who agrees reluctantly and out of financial need to tutor a student in the Open University program. An innovation of the mid-century, the Open University was a cross between our institution of community colleges open to all and the British university tutorial system. When Rita the hairdresser arrives, she's a fright: loud, chatty, cunning, brassy blonde and irreverent. Frank Bryant the academic cringes. Rita can't distinguish between the elegant British novelist E.M. Forster (author of A Room with A View, Howard's End, and, my favorite, A Passage to India) and Harold Robbins, pulpmeister supreme, author of thick, simple paperback novels such as The Carpetbaggers, Where Love Has Gone and The Inheritors.
Willy Russell's play is very English -- a bit Pygmalion, a good dose of comedy about social classes, and a lot of irresistible force meeting immovable object. Rita struggles toward "something better than just the telly and buying dresses." Her husband won't understand or accept it. Frank becomes a reluctant ally and, eventually, an admirer. Tutoring sessions don't dwell on literature for long, except to reveal Rita's enthusiasm when she attends her first play. The short, quickly moving scenes show us her evolution in dress, manner, style and thought. Frank, previously slumbering at his academic post, is goaded into re-examining his own values and the abandoned poetry of his youth.
Michael Stuart is solid, as ever, a great mass of humanity with an intelligent, doleful look in his eyes and restrained, patient comments for his unexpected pupil. Molly Karrasch, on the other hand, sparkled and was an absolute delight. I'd seen her previously, a comely participant in the staged radio play It's A Wonderful Life and a frighted young housewife in The Mousetrap. In this role as Rita -- whose name turns out, in fact, to be Susan -- Karrasch has terrific pep, perkiness and control of Rita's gradually evolving language and accent. Karrasch's performance and their vivid portrayal of the developing relationship made this one of the best comedies on stage so far this season.
Click to view the program of Educating Rita by Sidetrack Productions at the Larry L. King Theatre of Austin Playhouse.