In Slipping, high school student Eli—recently transplanted to Iowa from San Francisco—is not handling the move so well. His charming carapace of sullen, mild rebellion (chainsmoking American Spirits, for instance) begins to crack as his life improves, revealing something far more dangerous. Soon, Eli is bent on a total self-annihilation set to the melancholy beat of Joy Division.
And things were going so well, too. Life in Iowa at first seems, if not bucolic, then at least content. Eli (Seth Numrich) and his mother Jan (Meg Gibson) are reaching a tentative truce in their rocky relationship; Eli soon has a new friend, the cute and funny shortstop Jake (MacLeod Andrews); and if memories of his California classmate and lover Chris (Adam Driver) occasionally get him down, Eli has the benefit of being able to hide behind his eccentric new kid persona at school. But as Jan moves on with her life and Jake wants more from Eli, complications, as they say, ensue.
Playwright Daniel Talbot has written a funny, dark, and gorgeous new play in Slipping, one that comes close to perfection thanks to director Kristen Kelly’s fluid staging and the pitch perfect cast. The first half hour, packed with flashbacks to San Francisco and the self-loathing Chris, can seem hectic as the cast rushes around rearranging furniture, but Slipping soon settles into a rhythm.
Crucially, Talbot and his male cast members show a real flair for teenage lust, the uncertain underpinnings of desire when the rules haven’t yet been set and anything is possible. Chris’s seduction of Eli is a particularly unsettling scene, as Eli struggles with his lust and the fear that the straight Chris is just baiting him. In contrast, Jake’s easygoing admission that he wants Eli is both hilarious and adorable. And it’s a testament to Numrich’s versatile performance that a frisson of excitement runs through the audience at the prospect of Eli finding true love.
That the rest of the cast match Numrich’s performance is a minor miracle in a time when casting directors seem to throw up their hands half-way through a job. Andrews is a charming delight as the hesitant Jake throws caution to the winds, while Driver is his perfect foil as the high school jock who’s happy to use Eli to get off and then piss in his locker at school to cover up his tracks. And Gibson is a minor marvel as Jan, a woman who won’t let her son’s problems interfere with the second chance she’s been given at life. Slipping may occasionally stumble, but director Kelly makes sure that the cast’s performances are raw and vital enough to compensate for any minor flaws.
Through Aug. 15. Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place (between Perry St. and W. 11th St.), 212-868-4444. $20.