Language is a liar’s most valuable tool—the better the speech, the more convincing the lies. English-language coach Celia (Carrie Coon) and her French-Congolese student Pierre (Austin Talley) build a relationship out of withholding the truth, and as Celia teaches her pupil the words he uses to deceive her, she plays a manipulative game of her own.
South African playwright Craig Higginson’s 2010 drama receives a sensual, explosive U.S. premiere from director Joanie Schultz, whose two-person cast captures the play’s emotional turbulence. Despite the script’s pacing issues—a major tonal shift in the second scene that comes too quickly—the actors develop an organic chemistry.
Talley does remarkable dialect work: As Pierre’s English becomes stronger, Talley’s voice grows more confident and powerful. Pierre is ultimately forced to come clean, but it’s never clear just how much of Celia’s story is fiction; her ambiguity speaks to Coon’s skill at conveying compelling lies.
Coon has become a go-to actor for deeply vulnerable characters whose repressed feelings boil over and consume them (she’ll reprise her extra-sticky Honey from Steppenwolf’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway this fall). Celia may be Coon’s most volatile role yet. Even after we learn the extent of her instability, it’s hard not to be entranced by the character, especially once she slips into the titular yellow dress. Celia protects herself by drawing attention away from her personal life; each choice she makes, from her words to her wardrobe, is a new distraction for Pierre.