June 20, 2012

"Slowgirl" is a Smart Choice for Theater Lovers

For people obsessed with theater, talking about how the theater is dying is like talking about the weather for regular people: you know you can always get a conversation going.  And yet, the theater, like the weather, continues to roll on regardless of what’s said about it. And sometimes, all the elements come together and create one of those near-glorious days that make you glad to be alive—or to be in love with the theater.

I had one of those days last week when I saw Slowgirl, the new show that opened on Monday night as the inaugural production at Lincoln Center Theater’s new Claire Tow Theater.

In keeping with a tradition at Lincoln Center, the Claire Tow is named after a female patron. The new space, which has just 112 seats, sits atop the Vivian Beaumont Theater and includes a small bar and a broad terrace with benches and grand views of the Upper West Side. 

It reminded me of the new Pershing Square Signature Center, not in style, because architect Hugh Hardy’s design is less expansive than the one Frank Gehry did for Signature, but in the optimism that the arrival of both convey that there continues to be a place for theater in the 21st century.

The Claire Tow was built to provide a home for Lincoln Center’s LCT3 program which supports the work of emerging playwrights.  And it could hardly have found a better inaugural production than Slowgirl, which was written by Greg Pierce, the 34 year-old playwright who recently achieved another first when he became the first lyricist to collaborate with John Kander after the death eight years ago of Kander's longtime partner Fred Ebb (click here to read more about how that production came together). 

That project, The Landing, had a two-week run down at the Vineyard Theater that my theatergoing buddy Bill and I managed to see but that I didn’t write about because it was part of the Vineyard’s lab series, which allows theatermakers to experiment without having to worry about the judgment of critics. But I will say that The Landing didn’t prepare me for the multi-layered pleasures of Slowgirl.

A two-hander, Slowgirl is set in the Costa Rican rainforest, where Sterling, an American who lives in lonely, self-imposed exile, is playing host to a hastily-arranged visit from his 17-year-old niece Becky, whom he hasn’t seen since she was in grade school. It’s no spoiler to say that both are hiding painful secrets which, over the course of the 80-minute play, are eventually revealed and, at least partially, healed.

The plot resembles that of 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s equally terrific play about the reunion between a grandmother and grandson that began as an LCT3 production but is now playing a longer run at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater through July 1.  But each show creates characters who ground the universality of their experiences in distinctive and believable people.

Slowgirl’s titular character isn’t Becky but a classmate with a learning disability who was the victim of an incident in which Becky may be implicated. Becky is a teenage motor mouth, whose syntax is ruled by the I-like-said-and-he-like-said formations that punctuate the utterances of so many young people today and her vocabulary is littered with casual profanities.  Her Uncle Sterling is her polar opposite, a man comfortable with silences and almost awkward with words. 

They are terrific roles, filled with heart and humor, and the actors playing them are superb. Sarah Steele, a bright young actress who always manages to be both intriguingly quirky and utterly natural, is a crowd pleaser as Becky. Just 23, Steele knowingly captures the  jittery bravado that so many teens use to shield the insecurities roiling inside.

But Sterling is the soul of the play.  Pierce is the nephew of David Hyde Pierce (click here to watch a short video clip in which the playwright talks about his family and this play) and Sterling would have been a wonderful role for his uncle but I don’t think even that fine actor would have played it with any more sensitivity than does Ċ½eljko Ivanek. 

A two-time Tony nominee whom we now see far too little of on the stage, Ivanek turns in a nuanced performance that is all the more remarkable because so much of it has to be conveyed with expressions that flitter across his face or the way he holds a cup of tea. 

He and Steele are supported by an equally first-class production.  Rachel Hauck’s simple but lovely set manages to get both the humble hut where Sterling lives and the surrounding forest onto the Claire Tow’s cozy stage. Japhy Weideman’s lighting is at times poetic. Meanwhile, Leah Gelpe’s sound design conjures up the mysteries and the comforts of the forest.  And, of course, kudos must go to director Anne Kauffman who orchestrates it all brilliantly.

But the main thing here is the play. Slowgirl may not be a great work but it is a deeply satisfying one and as welcomed as the first breeze of summer.

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