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Theatre Review: Retro Comedy in CATCO’s Educating Rita

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Retro Comedy in CATCO’s Educating RitaJenny Case and Jonathan Putnam in CATCO's Educating Rita. Photo by DiBlasio Photography.
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CATCO’s season continues with a well-executed revival of Willy Russell’s ‘80s British comedy Educating Rita directed by Steven Anderson.

Educating Rita follows the title character’s trying to change her life and outlook through education. Rita’s (Jenny Case) thirst for transformation starts with her name, a Bob Dylan-esque change inspired by Rita Mae Brown, right before she enrolls in an open university literature class.

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Jenny Case and Jonathan Putnam in CATCO’s Educating Rita. Photo by DiBlasio Photography.

The class assigns Rita to Frank (Jonathan Putnam) for tutoring. Frank’s an acclaimed poet turned burned-out professor who admits he took on the tutoring jobs to help pay for the drink.  As she comes into her own, finding herself, he doesn’t always like when she’s not in awe of him as he struggles with his own demons of ennui and boredom.

The source material is extremely dated and feels like it was dated well before its 1980 premiere. Its takes on sex and class are retrograde to the extreme. Beyond the friction with modern sensibilities, just viewed on its terms, Educating Rita is very thin gruel. Everything here is Pygmalion-lite, and it choreographs every punch line with no room for surprise or revelation. Much as it tries to be a tribute to education, more often the play lands squarely in arrogant condescension more likely to turn people offeducation. There isn’t enough there to sustain its 2-hour-plus (with intermission) run-time.

That said, it’s a testament to Anderson and his two actors that the production is as charming and fun as it is. Jenny Case does a great job teasing out the nuance in Rita and keeping us focused on her transformation. Case’s performance makes stiff, seen-it-before transformations on the page into something organic and real. Jonathan Putnam’s take on Frank, a character we’ve all seen a million times, is as finely calibrated as a classic pocket-watch. Every raised eyebrow, every shift in his voice, achieves maximum effect without straining.

Jenny Case and Jonathan Putnam in CATCO’s Educating Rita. Photo by DiBlasio Photography.

Anderson uses Frank’s office – where the snapshots that make up the play all occur – as an arena. The physicality and propulsion of this production, combined, is the greatest joy of this Educating Rita. There is great joy in watching those two actors bounce off the walls of academia and each other, even if, for me, it didn’t make up for the basic play.

For fans of the original, fans of that specific May-November prickly friendship rags-to-riches genre, or someone looking for this particular brand of retro, this Educating Rita is a must-see. For everyone else, the quality of the production doesn’t quite overcome the dated source material.

Educating Rita runs through April 29 with shows at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit catco.org

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