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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Seth Numrich and Macleod Andrews.
Photo by Paula Court.

Itís happened to everyone: You long to tell someone how you feel about them, and you simply canít say what you need to. You can create the sounds in your throat, but exposure to air paralyzes them, creating awkward silences and waves of discomfort when there should be unequivocal warmth and understanding. But because words are so essential to theatre, this common experience is rarely the foundation on which entire plays are built. That hasnít stopped Daniel Talbott from trying with Slipping, his play that Piece by Piece Productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory are producing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

And the outcome, even in director Kristen Kellyís assured and generally well-acted production, is essentially what youíd expect: pockets of smoldering passion strewn among lines, bits of dialogue, and even whole scenes that donít jell into emotional cohesion. When Talbottís gambit works, his play is absorbing; when it doesnít, itís clunky and almost amateurish. Like its characters, you become lodged between notions of what should be and what is, and are saddled with frustration at your inability to reconcile the two.

Admittedly, the people in the play have it slightly tougher. Eli (Seth Numrich), an out gay boy, has moved from San Francisco to Iowa with his mother, Jan (Meg Gibson), in the wake of his fatherís death. Heís left behind him a relationship with a chained-in-the-closet boyfriend, Chris (Adam Driver), that did not end happily, and is now warming up to someone at his new school, Jake (Macleod Andrews), whoís an outgoing 17-year-old virgin and, alas, straight. Well... maybe. Interested as Jake may be to sleep with girls, it doesnít take him long to come around to Eliís charms.

Itís Talbottís 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 Eliís 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 Eliís 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 Eliís 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 (heís not reacting well to Eliís 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 Eliís glassy faÁade as he becomes closer to Jake, all while maintaining a deceptively inviting individualism. With every line, itís as if heís daring you to reconsider each preconception you make ďlosersĒ and ďlonersĒ you walk past on the street - it's a subtle, powerful performance.

Seth Numrich and Meg Gibson.
Photo by Paula Court.

Andrews, likewise, is terrific as Jake, brightly drawing on the characterís athletic ardor to center a boy whoís used to getting what he wants, and isnít about to be defeated now. Gibson has smartly conceived Jan as just as brittle and on-the-edge as Eli, but with a greater set of coping tools - she metes out a motherís affection and barely restrained dislike for Eliís choices to make you understand the toll each of her perceived failures takes on her. As Chris, Driver is notably less successful, emphasizing too much of the one-note jerk Eli hates and none of the person he once adored.

Unfortunately, the playís structure tends to defuse the acting and muddle the story. Interspersing the San Francisco scenes with those set in Iowa forces the harsh Chrisís narrative pay-off to come too late, and sticking with him that long is not easy. Lauren Halpernís bedroom unit set and Joel Moritzís 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 everyoneís uncertainty injects into his or her speech. Theyíre magnetic for the first few scenes, but start seeming tiring and indecisive by about the halfway mark; Kelly hasnít infused her staging with energy to propel the show ahead during those moments. And thatís crucial: Plays depend on crystalline thought, action, and speech - even crippling confusion demands the playwright pay rapt attention to minute details so that whatís said and whatís left unspoken work with, instead of against, each other.

Talbott hasnít relied too much on subtext with Slipping - he hasnít relied on it enough. The characters here arenít thinking one thing and saying another; much of the time, theyíre just unable to say anything at all. That makes it far too difficult to hear every nuance of this potentially fascinating and poignant story of first love lost and lasting love found.

Through August 15
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix