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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Seth Numrich and Macleod Andrews.
Photo by Paula Court.

It's happened to everyone: You long to tell someone how you feel about them, and you simply can't 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 hasn't 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 Kelly's assured and generally well-acted production, is essentially what you'd expect: pockets of smoldering passion strewn among lines, bits of dialogue, and even whole scenes that don't jell into emotional cohesion. When Talbott's gambit works, his play is absorbing; when it doesn't, it's 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 father's death. He's 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), who's an outgoing 17-year-old virgin and, alas, straight. Well... maybe. Interested as Jake may be to sleep with girls, it doesn't take him long to come around to Eli's charms.

It's Talbott's 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 Eli's 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 Eli's 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 Eli's 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 (he's not reacting well to Eli's 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 Eli's glassy fa├žade as he becomes closer to Jake, all while maintaining a deceptively inviting individualism. With every line, it's as if he's daring you to reconsider each preconception you make "losers" and "loners" 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 character's athletic ardor to center a boy who's used to getting what he wants, and isn't 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 mother's affection and barely restrained dislike for Eli's 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 play's structure tends to defuse the acting and muddle the story. Interspersing the San Francisco scenes with those set in Iowa forces the harsh Chris's narrative pay-off to come too late, and sticking with him that long is not easy. Lauren Halpern's bedroom unit set and Joel Moritz's 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 everyone's uncertainty injects into his or her speech. They're magnetic for the first few scenes, but start seeming tiring and indecisive by about the halfway mark; Kelly hasn't infused her staging with energy to propel the show ahead during those moments. And that's crucial: Plays depend on crystalline thought, action, and speech - even crippling confusion demands the playwright pay rapt attention to minute details so that what's said and what's left unspoken work with, instead of against, each other.

Talbott hasn't relied too much on subtext with Slipping - he hasn't relied on it enough. The characters here aren't thinking one thing and saying another; much of the time, they're 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

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