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A CurtainUp Review

"Do you miss being in America? "— Becky

"In the states? Sometimes. "— Sterling
"Yeah, I'd probably blow my brains out if I were here by myself – no offense or anything"— Becky.
Željko Ivanek and Sarah Steele
Apparently many of the early reviews of Greg Pierce's play Slowgirl have pointed out the shared thematic thread, call it bridging the generational gap that ties this play with 4000 Miles now nearing the end of extended run at Mitzi Newhouse Theatre (also within the LCT complex). Both plays are defined by a senior and younger member of the same family who unexpectedly bond in a way that makes them able to give and to gain from the successes and failures, weaknesses and strengths of each other.

  Selected for production under the LCT3 New Artists New Audiences initiative, Slowgirl may not be in the same league as 4000 Miles, but Pierce has nevertheless created two intriguing characters and a situation that has been well calculated, under the sensitive direction of Anne Kauffman, to grasp andhold our attention despite winding down to a somewhat tentative ending. Accused of being responsible for a mentally challenged (hence the play's title), now-comatose, teenager's fall from a window during a wild house party, 17 year-old Becky (Sarah Steele) has been encouraged by her mother to illegally leave Massachusetts while awaiting news on the girl.

  The plan is for her to stay with Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek), the estranged, self-exiled uncle. A former lawyer, Sterling left the US years ago under the shadow of a criminal investigation. He has been living a relatively reclusive life in the Costa Rican jungle. Acutely aware of possibly facing a jail sentence if the girl dies, Becky also knows that there is something secretive about Sterling and the circumstances that led him to flee.

  The Play's most arresting aspect is that it evolves through the mostly one-sided talks that pass between the stressed-out, anxiety-ridden, motor-mouthed Becky and the reluctantly communicative Sterling. If few things that cross Becky's mind fail to find their way out of her mouth, what does come out is often comically crass and/or off-handedly vulgar in a manner practiced by unwittingly condescending teenagers. Much of Becky's increasingly self-incriminating blather is met with restraint by the bemused Sterling.

  There is humor to be found in the cadence and lilt of Becky's teen-speak speech patterns with most of her sentences tending to end tilting upward like a question. Steele, who was so impressive last season in Russian Transport is solidly into her character as she shields Becky's sense of uncertainty behind a glib exterior. The big question for the audience and for Sterling is whether this is a defensive front for an unconscionable liar and even more probably for an unremorseful, insensitive bully. Despite the croaking that comes more often than a comprehensible word, Ivanek provides a curiously affecting portrayal of reluctantly empathetic man who hopes to obfuscate his own past by daily walks in a labyrinth he has built in the jungle. This veteran actor, a receiver of a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for his performances in the LCT production of  Two Shakespearean Actors and on Broadway in Caine-Mutiny Court Martial can always be counted on to create a character that is uniquely his own.

  The dialogue throughout is a prime exhibit of Pierce's acute ear for potty-mouthed teen speak, as is his ability to capture that realistic void that often refines/defines the halting conversations. “Do you ever complete a sentence,” asks Becky of the man who only occasionally gets a chance to respond. The best scene is one in which Sterling and Becky share a meditative walk in the labyrinth, a somewhat sacred place where they begin to consider facing the consequences of their actions.

  The action mostly takes place in Sterling's two-room, doorless wooden shack with amenities that include a housekeeper (unseen) whom Becky discovers does more than wash the dishes. Set designer Rachel Hauck has created a splendid setting that elevates to reveal a jungle, its foliage represented expressionistically by crisscrossing green slats. Thanks to Leah Gelpe's sound design, the jungle, however, is also alive and dense with meanings and presumably metaphors like that clawing iguana on a tin roof.

  Pierce, whose plays have been seen at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival and at the Edinburgh International Festival, is unquestionably one of the theater's sharper new talents. He is also credited with the book and lyrics (music by John Kander) of the new musical The Landing soon opening at the Vineyard Theater With Slowgirl, he makes an impressive imprint on a season that is just getting into gear.

  The new 112-seat Claire Tow Theater is a handsome, comfortable and small theater. It is to be commended for (as the program states) “striving to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's criteria” There are only seven rows tiered to provide an unobstructed view of the stage. Except for the red fabric on the well-spaced seats, the décor palate is mainly cool white and grey. One reaches the theater by way of an elevator taken from the Vivian Beaumont lobby that leads to a long, narrow promenade. On the right is an open terrace with a view and a miniature shrub garden. There are cocktail table and chairs on the promenade that features a full bar and a selection of snacks.

Slowgirl< by Greg Pierce
  Directed by Anne Kauffman

  Cast: Sarah Steele (Becky), Zeljko Ivanek (Sterling)
  Sets: Rachel Hauck
  Costumes: Emily Rebolz
  Lighting: Japhy Weideman
  Sound: Leah Gelpe
  Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission
  Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center
  (212) 239 – 6200
  Tickets: $20
  Performances: Monday evenings at 7 PM and Wednesday through Sunday evenings at 7 PM with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM.
  From: 06/04/12 Opened 06/18/12 Ends 07/15/12
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 06/22/12
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