‘Educating Rita’ at the Colony Theatre

Special to The Times

Those familiar with the film version of “Educating Rita” may not be aware that Willy Russell’s Oscar-nominated screenplay began as a two-person play, first produced in 1980 by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

How “Rita” evolved is a drama in itself. Like Rita, his spunky eponymous heroine, Russell was a working class Liverpudlian who left school at 15 and became a hairdresser -- work he detested. Battling peer pressure and self-doubt, he enrolled in college and eventually became a teacher and writer. His plays include “Rita” and “Shirley Valentine,” comedies that, tellingly, center on lower-class protagonists who escape their grinding lots and venture, blissfully, into the wider world.

The current production of “Rita” at the Colony has been heralded as the first American production of Russell’s recently updated stage version. Just what has been updated remains unclear, particularly since director Cameron Watson keeps the action in chronological limbo. In light of Rita’s references to “fusion” restaurants, a rotary dial phone seems strikingly anachronistic, while Rita’s various essays are hand-scrawled.

However, if you don’t mind suspending a bit of logic along with your disbelief, you are apt to be richly rewarded. Watson, director of last season’s Colony hit, “Trying,” reverts to the same winning formula in this impressive production.

“Trying” was a two-person play about the cultural clash between a young Canadian secretary and an elderly jurist -- two antithetical personalities who amusingly abrade each other’s beliefs and develop a life-altering friendship. “Rita” observes roughly the same dynamic. Rita (Rebecca Mozo), a brash and uneducated motor-mouth with immortal longings, barges into the office of Frank (Bjorn Johnson), an alcoholic poet turned professor now on the staff of an obscure Liverpool university. For Frank, who has largely given up on his writing and his life, Rita is a tectonic force who rattles his world.

Yet as Rita gains in polish and knowledge, Frank deplores her intellectual artifice, the loss of genuineness that made Rita so uniquely her own person. What results is a charged dialectic that often borders on the simplistic. Russell’s references to Blake, as Rita is undergoing her own passage from innocence to experience, couldn’t be more obvious, and certain one-liners elicit more groans than laughs.

Despite that, “Rita” remains durably funny, a brisk examination of British class divisions and commonalities. In his handsome and keenly paced staging, Watson employs the same design team he used in “Trying” to striking effect. Particularly noteworthy is Victoria Profitt’s set, a cozy enclave filled with books and esoteric artifacts of academia.

Watson has, once again, enlisted the services of Mozo, his protean leading lady from “Trying” and El Portal’s production of “I Capture the Castle,” the stage adaptation of Dodie Smith’s beloved 1948 novel. In the role that made Julie Walters a star, Mozo turns in a radiant Rita, mastering the demands of her Liverpool accent while keeping her potentially abrasive chatterbox indefatigably charming. As for Johnson, he eclipses Michael Caine’s phlegmatic movie portrayal. An otter to Caine’s sloth, Johnson quivers with suppressed intensity while nailing every laugh. Deceptively effortless and authentic, Mozo and Johnson are gifted performers at the top of their game.

“Educating Rita,” Colony, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Also Aug. 30 and Sept. 6 at 3 p.m. and Sept. 11 and 18 at 8 p.m. $37-$42. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.