Monday, August 10, 2009

Slipping

GRADE: B

By Daniel Talbott. Directed by Kirsten Kelly. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. (CLOSED)

A few critics think that Daniel Talbott needs to work on his playwriting craft, but most critics are taken in by his play about a gay 17-year-old exploring a new relationship and dealing with the demons of his past. Most of the positive reviews are devoted to Seth Numrich as Eli and the rest of the four-person cast. Also frequently noted is the carefully chosen music selection of the tormented teen variety.


TheaterMania A+
(Dan Bacalzo) Numrich delivers a layered and often wrenching performance as Eli. The flashback scenes with Chris show Eli as shy and tentative, while the present-day scenes with Jake display a bitterness and aggression that is often aimed at pushing Jake away, rather than letting him get too close. Both strategies expose Eli's underlying vulnerability, and Numrich isn't afraid of making his character extremely unlikable at times. And yet, he also makes Eli worth rooting for, particularly as Talbott reveals more and more about the character's self-destructive and damaged psyche. As the men in Eli's life, Andrews brings a bright burst of energy to his portrayal that both contrasts and complements Numrich's more subdued take on Eli. The two actors have a very palpable and believable sexual chemistry with one another, and the sheer exuberance that Andrews displays as Jake and Eli cavort naked in bed is smile-inducing. Driver delivers an unpredictable performance that always has a hint of danger behind it. Chris takes his internalized homophobia out on Eli, constantly belittling and threatening his lover. "Every time I see you at school I want to just rip you apart," he tells him in one of the play's most agonizing encounters that exposes both the love and hate that bind Chris and Eli together, and demonstrates quite plainly how their relationship cannot possibly end well.

Backstage A
(Erik Haagensen) None of this is new, yet all of it is compelling due to the specificity of character and emotional complexity of Talbott's script. The bifurcated structure helps enormously; we are only given pieces of the puzzle and must work to put them together. What is particularly gratifying is that when that puzzle fills in, it doesn't feel in any way pat or reductive, just true. Kirsten Kelly's sharply focused direction guides us confidently, and she even manages to make a virtue out of a debit. "Slipping" is a bit hemmed in by the tiny Rattlestick space; it needs the ability to move away from Eli's suburban bedroom, however nicely realized by designer Lauren Helpern. With no place for that bed and room to go, Kelly is forced to rely on her actors to move set pieces to change locales. They do this resolutely in character, so much so that the scene changes actually tell us more about them, keeping the action hurtling forward when it all too easily could have halted.

Nytheatre.com A
(Martin Denton) Numrich mines the depths of the character, allowing us to understand the agonies of this damaged young man and to root for him; he's likable and vulnerable underneath all the baggage. The bad stuff doesn't feel piled on, just organic; and the good stuff—Eli's obvious love and affinity for photography, his intelligence and humor, and his oddly warm and unconventional relationship with his mother, whom he clearly likes though perhaps does not love—feels just as natural and real. We watch the progress of Eli's new friendship with Jake, while in flashback interludes we learn the facts of the very unsatisfactory relationship Eli had with a boy back in California, Chris. The fragments come together for us and for Eli, to make him, finally, whole as the play reaches its conclusion. Andrews is delightfully affable and gawky as Jake, while Driver is startlingly empathetic as the sadly conflicted Chris. Gibson is excellent as the only adult in the play, a woman who doesn't really know how to communicate with her child except as a sort-of equal. Kirsten Kelly's direction is perhaps a bit heavier than it needs to be: projections indicating time and place and lots of shifting of furniture during scene transitions seem out-of-place in the ethereal and lyrical world of the play. Talbott's writing is gorgeous and wise, balancing teenage angst with an adult perspective that gives Slipping both emotional heft and universality. By turns funny, sad, and everywhere in between, the play shifts easily through Eli's memories and present-day, juxtaposing seemingly mundane moments with indelible ones and everyday conversation with hilarious ribald jokes. I experienced something of a catharsis at the end.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) It’s Talbott’s least-believable conceit that the well-adjusted, gregarious Jake could and would switch teams quite so quickly and easily, and it does not kickstart things on a convincing note. But Eli’s reaction to Jake, who is apparently - gasp - every bit the good guy he seems to be, is considerably truer and sharper. In a series of scenes that hop between present-day Iowa and California of two years ago, we see the evolution of Eli’s distrust of humanity as a whole and himself in particular, a psychological pain that leads him to inflict physical pain on himself (in the form of cutting) and emotional pain on others - maybe not always accidentally. Slipping is strongest when it deals directly with Eli’s coming to terms with his own problems as well as those of his mother (she was never at all close to either Eli or his father, and now wants to live for herself), Jake (he’s not reacting well to Eli’s mood swings), and Chris (whose personality shifted violently depending on who else was around). Much of this is due to Numrich, who easily triumphs over the challenge of making this angry young man both likable and secretly worthwhile. He constructs and then slowly cracks Eli’s glassy fa├žade as he becomes closer to Jake, all while maintaining a deceptively inviting individualism. With every line, it’s as if he’s daring you to reconsider each preconception you make “losers” and “loners” you walk past on the street - it's a subtle, powerful performance... Unfortunately, the play’s structure tends to defuse the acting and muddle the story. Interspersing the San Francisco scenes with those set in Iowa forces the harsh Chris’s narrative pay-off to come too late, and sticking with him that long is not easy. Lauren Halpern’s bedroom unit set and Joel Moritz’s lighting are not well-suited to the myriad locales and rapid-fire you-are-there scene changes the fast-paced play requires. Then there are all those pauses everyone’s uncertainty injects into his or her speech. They’re magnetic for the first few scenes, but start seeming tiring and indecisive by about the halfway mark; Kelly hasn’t infused her staging with energy to propel the show ahead during those moments. And that’s crucial: Plays depend on crystalline thought, action, and speech - even crippling confusion demands the playwright pay rapt attention to minute details so that what’s said and what’s left unspoken work with, instead of against, each other.

Variety C+
(Steven Suskin) The action, such as it is, shows Eli's adjustment to his new home and a "hopefully" more normal relationship with Jake (whom he meets as they are both throwing pots in ceramics class). Talbott has given us a highly likable hero in Eli, although the dark patches in his character seem to jump out of nowhere. One gets the impression of an autobiographical portrait written by an author who doesn't quite understand his dark side. More problematic is the fragmentary dramaturgy. "Slipping" is written in some 30 separate scenes, some as brief as two words. This works well on film but is highly distracting onstage; in some cases, it takes longer to swivel the furniture and change costumes than to play the actual scene. Director Kirsten Kelly manages to keep the action moving through all those quick changes of locale, but she doesn't seem to have helped Talbott focus his play.

The New York Times C+
(Andy Webster) Basically this is suds (with beefcake and no dearth of nudity). A subplot about blaming Jan for indirectly contributing to the demise of Eli’s father barely registers. That said, Ms. Gibson manages to earn sympathy despite the deck stacked against her. The strongest asset here — this is Mr. Talbott’s first full-length play — is Mr. Driver’s menacing portrait (in flashbacks) of Chris, a man unable to face his own sexuality, who takes out his self-loathing on the object of his desire. His simmering presence lends the story a palpable tension. Proficiently directed by Kirsten Kelly, “Slipping” is a collaboration between Piece by Piece Productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory, for which Mr. Talbott is the artistic director; he is also a Rattlestick literary manager. The play benefits considerably from its sound design, by Brandon Epperson, incorporating impeccable song choices by Mr. Talbott. Snippets from the Smiths, Cat Power, Hole, Eminem and others exude that tortured teen spirit.


Time Out New York
C+
(Andy Propst) Talbott’s writing can be sensitive and touching; Jake’s early, awkward encounters with Eli are a particular treat. Elsewhere, though, the language is exceedingly self-conscious, particularly during Eli’s pretension-filled monologues. Kirsten Kelly’s direction of the staccato, episodic piece exacerbates the play’s weaknesses and excesses, alternating between being languidly portentous and overly frenzied. Similarly Numrich’s performance as Eli—passionate, but lacking nuance—undermines the script. Andrews gives a more satisfying turn, easily navigating the intricate twists of Jake’s coming-out while also making a credible romantic leading man. Jake and Eli’s relationship plucks heartstrings, and the satisfying aspects of Slipping signal that Talbott is a playwright to encourage. Given time, he may mature into a fine writer.

New York Post C-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) ELI is a loner with ace cheekbones and a brooding stare. He takes arty photographs, develops unrequited crushes and listens to the Smiths: "Call me morbid, call me pale/I've spent too long on your trail . . . " Incredibly, Eli isn't a vampire. He's the second best thing, though: He's a gay teen. As played by handsome Seth Numrich -- who looks a lot like Robert Pattinson -- in Daniel Talbott's "Slipping," Eli is both at ease with his sexual orientation and at war with the messiness of emotions. Romantically pulling on cigarettes and listening to indie rock, he craves and fears love.

TheaterMania A+ 14; Backstage A 13; Nytheatre.com A 13; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; Variety C+ 8; The New York Times C+8; TONY C+ 8; New York Post C- 6; TOTAL: 79/8 = 9.875 (B)

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