A hit in the making
New TheatreWorks play still needs work, but is powerful and promising
Rajiv Joseph is theater's latest prodigy, having been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 for his play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which is now on Broadway starring Robin Williams. "The North Pool," his newest play, has gone through several workshop productions before being produced by TheatreWorks in its world premiere.
Clearly Joseph is a talented and fresh voice in the theater world, and his plays are hot properties. This one has all the signs of a hit, and bravely deals with important and timely topics such as teen suicide, school responsibility and societal pressures. Powerful, challenging and compelling, the play delivers an engaging dialogue that provokes conversation. But it needs some tightening up before it heads to Broadway.
It's hard to discuss "The North Pool" without revealing significant plot points. Set in a "high school in America, the present," the one-act play features only two characters: the vice principal, Dr. Danielson (Remi Sandri); and a recent transfer student, Khadim Asmaan (Adam Poss). Khadim is called into Danielson's office at the end of the school day right before spring break, ensuring that the two are left alone once everyone else has vacated the premises.
This device gives Danielson time to question Khadim about some of his activities on campus, and slowly we begin to see what the interrogation is really about, as if watching a photograph being developed, gradually coming into focus. As Danielson says, perception is everything, and each new reveal shifts our perception of the two and their situations.
The north pool serves as a metaphor for a secret, something with a veiled purpose. As Khadim's reality becomes known, the metaphor is brought into sharp relief. By play's end, the ground has shifted, whatever preconceptions we might have had have been shattered, and the characters have been through major catharsis.
Poss as Khadim is brilliant, understated and utterly believable. He manages to engage our sympathies immediately, and then forces us to reexamine our initial perception with each subtle gesture or raised eyebrow.
Sandri is the perfect type for the long-suffering vice principal, and he brings home the final scenes with well-acted angst. But the character is built too much on stereotype. Throughout the first half of the play, the character verges on caricature, making it difficult to find his humanity. This feels like a script flaw: Danielson is too much made of cardboard, in contrast to the very real Khadim.
In addition, while the subject matter is weighty and significant, the play's structure needs tweaking. Danielson goes off on several tangents as he's holding forth to Khadim, including one that hits the metaphor a bit heavily. Also, the situation in the first place requires major suspension of disbelief, as no vice principal in his right mind today would encounter a student in this manner, totally alone for over an hour — especially when we learn there already have been rumors.
That being said, the play still brings home some power in the end, dealing with larger themes of redemption and forgiveness, as well as addressing questions of responsibility and authority in an institutional environment. Danielson says that to him the school is sacred, and this gives him a calling and an obligation to make sure that all students are safe. But neither he nor Khadim have complete power over events, or feelings, or societal pressures, or perceptions.
Creating the kind of space, whether in school or otherwise, where all can feel safe and valued is complex and difficult, "The North Pool" tells us. But the play also gives us a redemptive starting point, at the ground zero of every human interaction.
What: "The North Pool" by Rajiv Joseph, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through April 3, with performances at 7:30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. on Sundays
Cost: Tickets range from $24 to $67.
Info: Go to www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.