Willy Russell's 1980 play "Educating Rita" is all about educating Rita, a disgruntled hairdresser who's decided that ignorance is not bliss, and neither is her job or her marriage. Determined to give herself some class by taking a class that will help her rise above her class, she begins courses at university, where she runs into Frank, a professor who lectures on literature, but is now a burned-out boffin, dissing his career and students in his disillusionment.
He's retreated into the bottle, but when Rita shows up, her working-class manners and obvious wonderment at things he long ago took for granted rouse him to renew his enthusiasm for his job, and an odd relationship begins where he teaches Rita about literature, and she teaches him about enjoying it.
Posing the constant question of just who's educating and rebuilding whom, the play is part "Pygmalion" and part "Frankenstein," but it's never exciting. Frank and Rita are actually dull people, and their personal problems are hardly engaging. There's very little at stake in the play.
Frank and Rita's relationship has an effect on their personal lives. There's tension between Rita and her husband, and Frank's position at the university becomes precarious, but that all happens off-stage, so it has little impact.
The conflicts that arise between the two characters are nothing much, leading to a surprisingly flat emotional tone. This could have been made up with ripfire dialogue, presenting surprise discoveries and emotional epiphanies between the two characters, but Russell's dialogue is neither witty nor clever, and has little to recommend it.
There's really not a lot of contrast between the two characters. Rita's earthy humor in Frank's staid office provides a few comic moments, as does Frank's grouchy admissions that there are some things worth studying, these are few and far between.
Tight and clever acting could have made things more interesting, but the performances exacerbate an amiable but humdrum story. Both Cotter Smith as Frank and Jeana Stillman as Rita are competent in their roles, but that's all. They play the script straight, with little added personality.
A congenial but low-key chemistry between them becomes mildly interesting at times, but you'll never be convinced that these two people have arrived at a turning point in their lives.
Technical problems are at hand -- while it might be the questionable acoustics of the tiny, intimate quarters of the Brumder Mansion theatre, I really couldn't understand what Cotter Smith as Frank was trying to say. It's not that he's mumbling, just not projecting, a big problem in a very wordy play that depends on subtleties and nuances of speech.
Honestly, not a very exciting night at the theater.
As playwright Russell has written, "I wanted to make a play which engaged and was relevant to those who considered themselves uneducated, those whose daily language is not the language of the university or the theatre. I wanted to write a play which would attract, and be as valid for, the Ritas in the audience as the Franks." Ok, and he succeeded too, but so what?
While never tedious, even with a moment or two of genuine charm, "Educating Rita" is a bland and unmemorable little play made even blander by a professional, polite, but otherwise tame and flavorless production. Staged by the Cornerstone Theatre Company, it plays at the Brumder Mansion at 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. through May 29. Call (414) 342-2951 for tickets.