Theater review by Adam Feldman. Vineyard Theatre (Off Broadway). By Rajiv Joseph. Dir. Giovanna Sardelli. With Babak Tafti, Stephen Barker Turner. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Rajiv Joseph’s new play has a whole lot of issues. The most obvious can be guessed from The North Pool’s set-up: Dr. Danielson (Turner), the number-crunching vice principal of an American public high school, has summoned a student of Middle Eastern origin, Khadim (Tafti), to his office on the day before spring break; there is a pretext of detention for truancy, but Danielson clearly suspects him of more substantial misbehavior. (The school has been the target of a series of pranks.) The administrator’s tense conversation with the teen—which begins by teasing small lies from him, then leverages them against larger concerns—at first suggests a Homeland Security interrogation writ small. But racial profiling is only one of many social questions on The North Pool’s constantly turning table; others include class difference, bullying, sexual misconduct, educational politics, capitalism, animal cruelty and death. (The play’s title is a euphemism for the school’s old bomb shelter.)
Most of these issues are essentially red herrings, spawned to service the play’s need for continual revelations and reversals. Joseph keeps the power dynamics in perpetual flux: The resentful Danielson tries to land punches at Khadim’s rich-kid callowness; Khadim dodges when he can, and counters with jabs at Danielson’s supposed vices. Tafti and Turner, guided by director Giovanna Sardelli, sustain an underlying sense of tension throughout—commendable in a real-time two-hander—and the play’s curve balls are engaging enough. But the barrage of talk does not lead naturally to the sentiment of the ending. “We’re onions, you and me” says Danielson, and The North Pool is as well: So many layers, each of them thin.—Adam Feldman
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