Slowgirl marks not only the latest addition to talented young playwright Greg Pierce’s oeuvre but also an architectural annex, as this show debuts in Lincoln Center’s new Clara Tow Theater, which sits atop the Vivian Beaumont. Both are attractive and built on a firm foundation, making for an oddly ideal pair.
The same can be said for Becky (Sarah Steele) and Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek), the niece and uncle portrayed in Pierce’s two-hander, directed with a sure hand by Anne Kauffman. In a setup reminiscent of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, a Lincoln Center tenant last season, Becky visits her uncle in Costa Rica following a traumatic accident back home. It seems the wild child has been implicated in a drunk party prank gone awry that has left a mentally challenged classmate (whose epithet provides the title of the play) in critical condition. Becky, meanwhile, faces potential legal consequences. The seeds of this plot grow in a familiar fashion, but it’s the way Pierce prunes Becky and Sterling’s thorny push-pull relationship that makes this worthy play bloom.
Over the course of its four scenes, all perfectly set up, paced, acted, Slowgirl hits the expected notes of familial discord and discovery. Typically, even the best of plays between two characters can devolve into an exposition-heavy mess of dialogue. But pierce is a crafty playwright. While Becky and Sterling have to reveal a lot about their lives both to each other and for the audience’s sake, there isn’t a conversation that doesn’t also elucidate something about each character’s inner demons and past history (there are specific reasons why the divorced Sterling fled the states, for example). We feel like we, the audience, are eavesdropping on real conversations. Additionally, Pierce has a great sense of humor that Kauffman has ensured gets delivered with perfect timing and intonation. Becky may have a foul teenager’s mouth, but every time she lets loose with a vulgarity, Steele always lands a laugh and also manages to contribute the appropriate character observation. In channeling the brashness teens often use to overcompensate for angst and insecurity, hers is a performance I imagine will stay with viewers long after leaving the Tow.
Of course, one also gets the feeling that should Slowgirl have had no dialogue at all, Ivanek’s performance might remain exactly the same, so physically expressive and subtle is his rendering of Sterling, a man to whom a life of quiet exile has become his safe haven. Watching Becky unknowingly (and eventually, we intuit, more knowingly) continuously burst his silent bubble is certainly palpable, but if plays could score points, Slowgirl would do so for its ability to walk the line between humor and drama. It’s the kind of show that elicits chuckles and winces in the same breath, and earns both.
Rachel Hauck deserves plaudits for her deceptively simple sets, including Sterling’s cabin-like home and a tiled labyrinth maze he has created, and Leah Geple’s sounds perfectly capture the soothing and the scary parts of a life lived off the grid. But that’s something Pierce need not worry about – Slowgirl has certainly announced the arrival of a worthy talent.
Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3, Clara Tow Theater, 150 W. 65th St. Thru August 5. www.telecharge.com
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