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Slowgirl

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Slowgirl
Željko Ivanek and Sarah Steele.
Photo by Erin Baiano

Whatever criticisms may be made of Slowgirl, the new play by Greg Pierce with which LCT3 is inaugurating its Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, its being overly subtle is not one of them. Concerning two American refugees spending a week together in the wilds of the Costa Rican dry forest, it makes most of its arguments, and hits all of its plot points, with the subtlety of a screeching howler monkey. (Which, come to think of it, makes an aural cameo at one point.) By the time unseen beasts are clawing at the corrugated aluminum ceiling of the pair's literally doorless dwelling just as their lives are falling further apart back in the U.S., you're afraid that you might drown in the near-total humidity of metaphors in which Pierce's play is so completely — but sometimes effectively — steeped.

Pierce has assembled a fairly sensible story to fit his scenario. Becky (Sarah Steele) has traveled from her Massachusetts home to the remote cottage of her uncle Sterling (Željko Ivanek) to await the results of a gruesome accident she's accused of causing. A developmentally disabled young woman (technically the title character) jumped out a second-floor window and landed on concrete, and apparently Becky was close by. But was she? And did she encourage the act or try to prevent it? The suspended-from-school Becky, 17, has made her trip to reconnect with her mother's cherished brother — whom she hasn't seen since his marriage ended several years ago — during what time she's sure she has left. Of course, Sterling has his own reasons for seclusion, and for having all but extricated himself from Becky's family.

The rest of the action, which unfolds over some 100 intermissionless minutes, explores the way these two related semi-strangers discover the nuances of each other and, yes, themselves over the course of the six days they spend together. The setting (designed simply but persuasively, by Rachel Hauck) alternates between Sterling's tiny, tree-surrounded home and the stone "labyrinth" he built nearby, a walking maze for focusing the mind and organizing thoughts and emotions prone to spiraling out of control. Given how much both Becky and Sterling need such a place, to commune together and separately, its inclusion in the play is not a surprise.

Neither is much else. Pierce has written, and Anne Kauffman has directed, Slowgirl with clarity, economy, and common sense. But hardly a word or event sheds fresh light on Becky's and Sterling's troubles, and the narrative seldom scintillates as much as it simmers. (The ultimate outcome of Becky's travails is obvious by the end of the first of four scenes; Sterling's woes, detailed later, are not much more complex.) Character growth is also on the weak, or at least the intermittent, side: Becky doesn't evolve much during her days with Sterling, and her uncle's advancements happen less because they had to for him than because they had to for Pierce to satisfyingly resolve the tangle of troubles with which they're both coping.

The rich-looking and scary-sounding jungle locale (the fine sound design is by Leah Gelpe) cannot obscure the distracting conventionality of the play. It pursues its storytelling by picking up and abandoning story elements as though overturning shells on a beach, while ignoring obvious avenues for deeper dives into these people's tortured psyches. (Some fascinating possibilities surrounding one of Sterling's post-divorce romances, and their implications on his jungle dwelling and the Costa Rican social order, are all but ignored after prominent build-up.) And as you're waiting for Becky to discover the course of her future, you're barraged with too much faux-spiritual talk (most of it centered within the labyrinth) that tries to scope out the cosmic significance of the duo's woes, but, because it never climaxes on its own, ends up looking and sounding more like filler.

Luckily, the dialogue, as written and performed, feels grounded. There's some fine styling in it, to be sure, with Becky sharp and breathless throughout, and Sterling rendered tentative of speech and thought by his years of living and thinking alone. The actors convincingly tread the difficult waters before them, with Steele projecting the palpable terror of a young girl facing a debilitating moment with the bravest face she can muster and Ivanek sensitively showing the ways in which Sterling is trying (and frequently failing) to cope with this interruption of his cherished routine. The two play off of each other beautifully, and movingly communicate a powerful yet frayed bond desperate to rebuild itself under unusually adverse circumstances.

But if Becky and Sterling must learn to take control of their lives and stand up to the forces that threaten to destroy them, Pierce is too content to let Slowgirl lounge in its own cushy comfort zone. Without the play having exactly the force of convictions it demands of its characters, it comes across as not the moving tribute to finding strength in yourself that it wants to be, but as a beautiful, lyrical time-waster that too often underestimates its own weakness.


Slowgirl
Through July 15
Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center Theater’s newest stage), 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current schedule: Telecharge