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Theater Review - Drove: Pedal to the metal

Dad's Garage rushes into Atlanta traffic

As the world premiere of Drove comes roaring out of Dad's Garage Top Shelf Theatre, the new comedy reminds us of the surprising effectiveness of cars as theatrical settings. Atlanta arguably already owns the "car play" as a mini-genre, thanks to Driving Miss Daisy's local manufacture.

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We live in an automotive culture, driven by our cars nearly as much as we drive them, so scenes set in motor vehicles can capture a nearly universal experience. "Road movies" may be common at the cineplex, but the spectacle of the ever-changing scenery along with the "personality" of the cars can overshadow the dynamics in the seats. Exceptions such as Taxi Driver explore the drama that goes on between passengers and drivers.

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In plays, imaginary motoring can be more effective than seeing the real thing. In Atlanta-born Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, the title character exhorts Hoke to slow down the first time he chauffeurs her to the Piggly Wiggly, until he laments, "We barely movin'." It's an unmemorable line in the film, but a hilarious highlight on stage: We see two actors in chairs, but can imagine the car inching along at a snail's pace.

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Driving Miss Daisy isn't the only play that puts Atlanta's stamp on the auto show. Last fall, nearly the full first act of Theatrical Outfit's Waiting to be Invited takes place on a bus driving to the downtown Rich's department store in 1964, traveling across the city's racial geography. At Dad's Garage, the creative pistons seem to fire for automotive scenes, from the simulated car chase at Action Movie: The Play to the sequences on buses and roller coasters in The Jammer earlier this year. Drove, created by the husband-and-wife team of Scott and Sloane Warren, takes place during a single rush hour on I-85.

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Drove begins with mild amusement before hitting high gear. The prerecorded curtain speech emulates the kind of halting radio DJ you hear on a left-of-the-dial channel, and the introductory sequence hits on the kind of broad joke you'd expect from the show. A nerdy-looking commuter (Matt Horgan) desperately tries to merge, but the too-cool driver (Matt Myers) in the other lane repeatedly blocks him.

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Lasting roughly more than an hour, Drove reveals more subtlety and insight than you'd expect from the premise. In the second scene, a prostitute (Amber Nash) talks to a policewoman (Megan Leahy) from the back of a squad car, and their "Reno 911"-worthy exchange briefly touches on different conceptions of "womanhood" and provides unexpected fuel for thought. Drove's four-actor ensemble and the Warrens developed the script over weeks of writing and improvisation. Within its short-sketch framework, Drove shows sensitivity and warmth for its harried, humorous characters behind the wheels.

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Each scene flows smoothly to the next, as if the respective autos are literally alongside each other, and much of the action touches on observational doodles about car culture. One driver talks to her stalled car exactly like a spouse apologizing to her loved one, while another scene captures that banished feeling of sitting in the backseat, unable to hear a wonderful conversation in the front.

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The actors all scoot around in desk chairs on casters, designed to look like car seats, but some of the encounters can be surprisingly heavy, and feature bittersweet snapshots of relationships as they begin, end or never even start. In Drove's dramatic highlight, a silent but visibly upset commuter (Myers) listens to an archive of saved cell-phone messages, and as the audience gradually figures out what happened to his relationship, emotions play heartbreakingly across his face.

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Myers also enjoys some of the play's most delightful musical moments. Drove appreciates the "private soundtrack" qualities of driving, and in one vignette a fast-food employee practices a pop song on multiple instruments until someone notices in a neighboring car. Later, another Myers role uses E.L.O.'s "Don't Bring Me Down" to drown out a serious discussion about money. In moments such as these, plus the final number and Horgan's hygienic faux pas during a ZZ Top tune, Drove suggests that despite traffic's enormous source of human stress, driving to the right song can create a feeling of joy that borders on transcendence.

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It seems unfair to single anyone out from such an entertaining ensemble. Nevertheless, Amber Nash channels a chameleonlike diversity of personalities, from Christian bus drivers to nervous teens to tense actresses en route to auditions. In two of the funniest moments, she plays, respectively, a woman making a sensual offer to her boyfriend in the middle of traffic, and another a woman who is brazen about her bodily functions. The scenes click so well because she plays neither of them as predictably aggressive or vulgar – they're not tired theatrical "types," but just unembarrassed real women.

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Lines such as "It smells like the bathroom of a vegan restaurant!" get massive laughs, but Drove turns out to be more than a gimmicky premise with good one-liners. Unexpectedly affecting, Drove reinforces Dad's Garage Top Shelf recent success as an assembly line for local talent, having staged such fine work in the past year as The History of Rock 'n' Roll, Skin and Lawrenceburg. Drove holds up a fun-house mirror to road rage, rubbernecking at accidents and other facets of the driving life, and it reminds us that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.