Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - March 4, 2011

A thriller is born

Pulitzer-finalist playwright readies his new drama for TheatreWorks curtain

by Rebecca Wallace

"The North Pool," the new psychological thriller premiering next week at TheatreWorks, was once a six-person play, and then a three-person play. Its action stretched out over many scenes. No matter how playwright Rajiv Joseph changed the script, it still felt problematic.

In 2009, when Joseph started a New Works Festival playwright's residency at TheatreWorks, he was ready to try something different. He narrowed the play down to two characters, and to just one scene set in real time. Through rewrites and readings with actors, the thriller started to gel.

"I had been working on the play for a long time and had many different readings and many different theaters," the New York writer said. "When TheatreWorks offered me the week-long opportunity, it was great. They let me bring in the director I wanted to work with, and they were very supportive. ... We had a great reading."

The cast clicked, too. When "The North Pool" opens next week, it will have not only the same director from New Works, Giovanna Sardelli, but the same actors: Adam Poss and Remi Sandri. Poss plays Khadim, a Syrian-born student new to this country and to his suburban American high school, while Sandri is Vice Principal Danielson, an authoritarian with his eye on Khadim.

"Having the same director and actors, that was very important to me because I had some other plays going on and wasn't able to be involved through the whole process (of readying the final production)," Joseph said. "To have people I trusted."

Joseph, 36, has indeed had a few other projects on his plate. Last year, his play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The play had also been chosen as an Outstanding New American Play by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009. That was the same year it premiered in Los Angeles and a Los Angeles Times critic called it "thrillingly genre-busting."

Now the play, which is about a tiger, two Iraq War soldiers and the absurdity of war, is set to open on Broadway this month with Robin Williams playing the zoo animal.

Other plays by Joseph that have received acclaim in recent years include "Gruesome Playground Injuries" and "Animals Out of Paper." The latter had a run at the SF Playhouse last year.

As for "The North Pool," Joseph has been working on it for about six years. It has some roots in the post-9/11 world, with its undercurrents of racial profiling. He decided to bring that and other themes to a public American high school. While he says the characters are fictional, he notes that the school is based on the one he attended in Cleveland.

Joseph's background also includes earning a master's in fine arts in dramatic writing from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and serving a three-year stint in the Peace Corps in Senegal.

In 2009, he was pleased to come to California for New Works, where "The North Pool" got its time in front of TheatreWorks audiences as a staged reading. Joseph said he enjoyed talking to people after the performances and reading their feedback forms.

The feedback particularly helped him with the character of young Khadim, he said.

"I realized going into the reading that, even though I felt like I knew who this character was, it wasn't exhibiting that he was as sympathetic as I wanted him to be," he said. "I agreed with the comments that (at one point) 'We're supposed to think this kid is totally OK, and I'm not sure if I do.'"

Fittingly for Silicon Valley, technology and cell phones also play a role in "The North Pool," Joseph said.

"There's a generational gap between adults and kids; for kids, the digital age is all they know," he said. "It's part of the disconnect between the two characters in the play."

Joseph has been in the Bay Area for some of the TheatreWorks rehearsals, and he plans to be back this month as well. It's part of his busy schedule of sitting in on rehearsals for his plays, writing and rewriting new scripts, and doing research.

For "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," for instance, his research load was heavy. He read books and watched film documentaries on Iraq and the other subjects in the play, as well as interviewing soldiers and journalists who had been in Iraq.

With "The North Pool," though, Joseph spent more time turning inward. "So much of it is based on my own imagining," he said, "and this very isolated moment in these people's lives."

What: "The North Pool," a psychological thriller by Rajiv Joseph, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: The show has 8 p.m. previews on March 9, 10 and 11, with opening night starting at 8 p.m. March 12. The show is set to run through April 3, Tuesday through Sunday, with afternoon and evening performances.

Cost: Tickets are $24-$67.

Info: Go to http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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