nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 1, 2009
Slipping, the beautiful, deeply felt, and very moving new play by Daniel Talbott, tells the story of one boy's coming of age and another's coming out. It's getting its New York premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre (co-presented by piece by piece productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory) in a production that features stellar performances by its four-person cast, MacLeod Andrews, Adam Driver, Meg Gibson, and Seth Numrich.
Numrich, on stage for virtually the entire play, is Eli, a 17-year-old boy who has just moved with his mother from San Francisco to a much smaller city in Iowa. Eli—trying to find himself in spiky dyed hair and aloof cool-kid posing—is a troubled kid. His father has recently died, his mother is not the least bit maternal, and he's struggling big time to cope with his new surroundings. Eli is gay, and though his mother is accepting of this and he's comfortable on some level inside himself, he is nonetheless grappling with the feeling of being an outsider—being queer, in both the traditional and contemporary senses of that word. And he's also recovering from a first love that has left him reeling.
He's not at all prepared for Jake, a boy in his high school art class—a seemingly ordinary guy, a baseball player!—who is becoming more and more interested in him:
JAKE: Why do you dye your hair that color?
ELI: Because I like to.
JAKE: I mean, it doesn't look dumb. I was just wondering....Do you play any sports?
ELI: Do I look like I play sports?
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.