Theater Review: A Superb “Educating Rita”

Willy Russell’s play is a keeper. It’s tightly-crafted, emotionally generous, and—most of all—FUN! It provides one hell of a dramatic vehicle for a director attuned to the comedy of “higher” education.

Jane Pfitsch as Rita in The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of EDUCATING RITA Photo: T Charles Erickson

Educating Rita by Willy Russell. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theater, Boston, MA, through April 10.

By Helen Epstein

I had been working hard and was up for an evening of intelligent, theatrical entertainment when I saw Sunday’s performance at the Huntington of Educating Rita.

I hadn’t seen the 1983 film with Michael Caine nor the original, now 30-year-old run of this Liverpuddlian update of Pygmalion. But I very much enjoyed Willy Russell’s feminist, prize-winning, one-working-class-woman-comedy Shirley Valentine. I went to the Huntington at Boston University expecting good writing, and I was not disappointed.

The university setting is particularly apt for Educating Rita, a one-set two-hander that takes place (unlike the movie) entirely in a burnt-out, boozy literature professor’s office.

The time is the early 1970s, when Britain began to open up its famously elite university system to “the people”—about a decade after American public universities began experimenting with “open admission.” The British experiment, however, was focused on providing adult education— targeting men and women over the age of 21, regardless of academic credentials.

Hairdresser Rita (whose given name was Susan but who changed it to Rita after reading Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown) has few. She’s a version of Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, pretty, street-smart, 26 years old, and, from her husband’s point of view, well past the time she should have gone off the Pill and had a baby.

“I was dead surprised when they took me,” Rita announces bluntly when she enters wearing a bright orange sweater, a mini-skirt, and white boots (the costumes, by Nancy Brennan, themselves prompt some of the laughter).

Her delegated tutor Frank remains tactfully silent. Even his “appalling students” seem educated compared to Rita. She lights up, offers him a cigarette, and thinks his reference to Yeats is a reference to a wine shop and that Forster’s “Only connect” must denote a frustrated electrician. She has never been to the theater and says she wants to be able to better understand those manifestations of high culture she’s glimpsed on TV. Of course, Rita will provide Frank with an education as much as he will her.

Jane Pfitsch (Rita) and Andrew Long (Frank) in the Huntington Theatre Company production of EDUCATING RITA. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Old-fashioned, tried and true, and formulaic are the thoughts that may spring to your mind about the plot yet I suspect that Willy Russell’s play is a keeper. It’s tightly-crafted, emotionally generous, and —most of all—FUN! It provides one hell of a dramatic vehicle for a director attuned to the comedy of “higher” education. It has two great roles for actors who are willing to throw themselves into the ever-changing dynamics between characters that are at once ordinary and unique. Who hasn’t encountered a teacher or a hairdresser similar to these two?

It’s a bonus that tutor Frank is written as an endearing figure, with little trace of the belittling or predatory qualities that have characterized university professors in more recent plays.

The director is Maria Aitkin, a veteran actress who played opposite John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda and with a long career acting and directing comedy. Andrew Long, who occasionally bears a disconcerting resemblance to a young Donald Sutherland, plays a Frank whom Rita slowly rouses from his academic stupor. Jane Pfitsch is infectiously charming as Rita.

If you’re looking for a good time as well as a lesson in how a good play is put together, go see Educating Rita.

Helen Epstein is the author of several books on Kindle about performers and cultural life.

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