Sound designer Richard Woodbury's bag of tricks for Greg Pierce's Slowgirl includes the cry of a parrot, the unnerving skittering of iguanas on a tin roof and the rustling of coral snakes—though that last one may have just been in my head. Yet the dominating sonic signature in Randall Arney's production doesn't come from Woodbury: It's the compulsive, non-stop nattering of the American teenager.
In this intriguing two-hander, which premiered last year in Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 series, Pierce drops seemingly affluent, entitled 17-year-old Becky (Rae Gray) into the Costa Rican jungle. She's there to visit her uncle, Sterling (William L. Petersen), who's spent the last several years holed up in a rural shack with little outside contact. Sterling hasn't seen his niece in nine years, and he's instantly unnerved by Becky's adolescent bravado, the forced nonchalance with which she talks about sex and, well, every other thought that enters her mind. "I'm the most outgoing person in my class," she insists more than once, rather defensively.
It's no surprise to learn Becky's confident display masks the reason for her visit; she's been implicated in an accident at a party that severely injured a classmate—the bearer of the cruel nickname of the play's title. Her mother has sent her to Sterling as a way of getting her out of the public eye for a few days. Sterling, not unexpectedly, turns out to be hiding from his guilt over an incident in his own past, and we settle in to watch them coax the truth out of one another.
The interplay between the characters provides an interesting inversion of our expectations of Steppenwolf's crackerjack cast: Petersen trades his stoic tough-guy image for Sterling's withdrawn reticence, while Gray, an acute, introspective-seeming young actor, takes on Becky's abrasive brashness. Pierce reveals their carefully plotted secrets over four long, deliberately paced scenes, which Arney keeps on an even keel, and the playwright's ear for the rhythms of modern teenage conversation rings amusingly, but not mockingly, true.
Still, there's a certain inevitability to the play's events. Petersen and Gray make an absorbingly off-kilter onstage pair, but our expectations for their characters' arcs are never far off the track.