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Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz team up

The morning after a recent rehearsal of "How I Learned to Drive," Elizabeth Reaser looks over a sheet of paper listing the things her director thinks she needs to work on next time.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The morning after a recent rehearsal of "How I Learned to Drive," Elizabeth Reaser looks over a sheet of paper listing the things her director thinks she needs to work on next time.

She sighs and turns over the page.

"I tend to get more than anyone else," she says, sadly. "Notice Norbert doesn't have one of these."

That would be Norbert Leo Butz, the two-time Tony Award winner of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Catch Me if You Can," who is sitting beside Reaser on a coach in the lounge of the hip Second Stage Theatre.

"I offered to pay an extra $100 per note," he jokes.

Reaser and Butz are trying to create as much humor offstage as they tackle a difficult work on stage: Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive," the Pulitzer Prize winning play that deals with pedophilia, damaged lives and shattered memories.

The play is a darkly bittersweet comedy that tells the story of a Maryland teen, played by Reaser, who is taught to drive — and at the same time is seduced — by her much older uncle, played by Butz. The play returns to New York City for the first time since its world premiere 15 years ago and at a time when child molestation is in the headlines, from Penn State to Syracuse.

"It's obviously topical again. And it's almost a shame that it's topical again. It should never not be topical," says Butz. "It's always been with us. It's always underneath. It's not distinctive to one era or decade or time. That glosses over the epidemic nature of the issue at large."

Reaser, an Emmy Award nominee perhaps best known as the matriarch of the Cullen clan in the "Twilight" films, has been looking for a play to sink her teeth into and says "this is the role of a lifetime." Butz knows the feeling, saying his own part is great. "They don't come along often. You have to just leap at them," he says.

While the play's pedophilia gets the most attention, both actors insist there's much more than just a predator-victim relationship at work here. They stress that the relationship between uncle and niece is hardly black and white.

"For me, it really is a love story. Obviously, there's transgressions. There are things that happen that are incredibly wrong morally and legally and ethically, but for me it really is a love story," says Reaser, 36.

Butz, who just turned 44, is even more forgiving, saying his character's horrific behavior actually doesn't define him. "His most distinctive quality is his gentleness, his warmth, his goodness. That's what's actually distinct about him. The fact that he is a man of really intense vices is not particularly interesting to me. It's the two things existing together," he says.

"The older that I get, the more the lines blur between good and bad, right and wrong. Wonderful people do terrible things and terrible people do wonderful things and the older you get that gets truer and truer and truer. It speaks to me at this age in my life, I suppose."

Reaser and Butz hadn't worked together before, and they've bonded over the chore ahead. Butz admits that self-doubt triggered a panic attack weeks before rehearsals but his quick friendship with Reaser has proved calming.

"I'm so lucky to have this one here — he gestures to his couch-mate — "because I don't know how I could have done it, specifically with this play. We just got sort of blessed."

Reaser, whose film credits include "Sweet Land" and who played Ava on television's "Grey's Anatomy," volleys back the love to her co-star: "He's just so incredible. He's such an amazing actor."

That prompts Butz to keep the compliments coming. "You know what working with Elizabeth is like? I'm a guitar player — it's like I've got a great bass player or drummer..."

"Backup singer?" Reaser quickly offers, laughing.

"It's just fun," Butz says. "It feels like jamming with a musician friend of mine."

They've had so much fun together that they've decided their work as a team isn't over.

"I'm trying to find other plays for us to do," says Reaser.

"We sit and dream about other things we can do," says Butz.

They both start listing other potential works, ending with "Much Ado About Nothing."

"Let's put it out there," says Butz. "We're both dying to do that."

"That would be fun," says Reaser.

For now, it's not all fun. Both actors were well aware that Vogel is a playwright who doesn't exactly shrink from taking on tough topics, whether it's AIDS in "The Baltimore Waltz" or prostitution in "The Oldest Profession." She has said "How I Learned to Drive" is, in part, an homage to Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," focusing on the female perspective.

Reaser and Butz say Vogel's writing has somehow managed to help them avoid going into any creepy places in their minds eight times a week. Butz says he went online when he was first offered the part and couldn't find a bad review — evidence, he says, that "How I Learned to Drive" is "both actor-proof and director-proof."

"The play is that well-constructed. When you're dealing with something that good, I don't have to live in the mind of a pedophile," he says. "It's the first play that I've done in a really long time that didn't need dramaturgical help from me. It's all there on the page."

Speaking of pages, Reaser is asked if she'll reveal just one of the items on her sheet of paper that director Kate Whoriskey says she needs to work on. The actress wrinkles up her face but gamely picks a note.

"'Dissociation gaze during back roads,'" she reads. She flips the paper over again and laughs: "It's more a technical note. But I'm already pretty dissociative throughout the course of this play."