MacLeod Andrews, Adam Driver, Meg Gibson, and Seth Numrich
In the author’s note in the program for his new off-off-Broadway play Slipping, playwright Daniel Talbott mentions the influence that the late British in-yer-face playwright Sarah Kane (who killed herself in 1999) has had on his work since he read about her in The New York Times.
Considering Kane’s stature in terms of the critical consensus regarding her work, this is a bold assertion to make.
Oftentimes when playwrights make a “shout-out” of sorts to another established writer, living or dead, it’s a self-indulgent acknowledgment of an admired idol, characteristics of whose work can be found lurking beneath a younger writer’s rather more unpracticed (or simply unsteady) creative vision.
Thankfully, in the case of Daniel Talbott’s play, his nod to Sarah Kane seems right on the money. Without mimicking Kane’s sparse, almost hopeless vision of the universe, Talbott manages to bring to life four rather lovably unlovable characters, entangled in a web of aspirations, tumbling and slipping as they attempt to find themselves in a world where the people one wants are not always the people one gets.
Set in Iowa in 2006, the play centers around Eli, a goth-punk druggie kid whose past romantic experiences have left him extraordinarily jaded as he adjusts to Midwestern life with his English professor mom, who’s relocated the pair of them from San Francisco. He’d previously been in love with jock Chris from his high school, a cruel, sadistic closet case unable to acknowledge his attraction to men despite an intense sexual relationship with Eli.
Now, faced with fresh surroundings in Iowa, Eli befriends mild-mannered jock Jake, who offers him companionship during pottery class and eventually asks Eli out to the movies – as a friend – before promptly suggesting the two have sex. As Eli and Jake move closer toward establishing firmer parameters for their rather blurry relationship, things begin slipping as Eli recalls the lasting effects of his time with Chris – manifested in dreams of bleeding sharks – as well as the infidelities of his mother.
The strength of Slipping is its modesty. The play runs ninety minutes and packs an intense emotional wallop. Much of the dialogue is in the form of clipped, concise lines. “I wanted him to own me,” Eli tells Jake of Chris. “I felt like he made me real in some way.” The characters refer to one another in emotional absolutes, embodying the same love-me-or-kill-me mentality of Sarah Kane’s theatre and recalling – in its consideration of the ownership of people over one another – the blunt emotional force of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking.
Rather than settling in to tell a somewhat a tense, emotional love story, Talbott has thrown his characters into the most intense situations imaginable. One character cuts himself on stage, another attempts suicide. There are simulated sex, a few brief moments of nudity, and plenty of frank conversations. But for once the high drama seems earned rather than tacked on. Talbott’s characters feel wholly part of this world he’s created, where the most important thing in the young characters’ lives is one other, for better or worse, be it out of obsessive necessity or love.
Embodying these extreme characters is a fine cast, including Seth Numrich as the emotionally defensive Eli, always one step removed from the crowd. As his two polar-opposite lovers, Jake and Chris, MacLeod Andrews and Adam Driver show the destructive and restorative powers of love respectively by offering Eli encouragement and disappointment along the way. And, as Eli’s mother Jan, Meg Gibson embodies just the right immature qualities essential to a woman who’s essentially unable to help her son where it counts despite her worry for him. As she exclaims, falteringly, “I am trying to see my life now,” she taps the air with her hand as if searching for answers in tic-like body movements. It’s a beautiful, well-chosen moment in a play where wonderfully specific character observations abound.
As directed by Kirsten Kelly, Slipping is a taut, fast-moving, and totally riveting piece of theatre. The subject matter is small: a boy in love with one boy, then another. But Daniel Talbott has escalated his characters’ emotions to the breaking point, pushing his characters into the situations that inspire the highest drama, and it’s paid off. To my mind, Slipping is possibly the most accomplished new play to have opened this summer, and it deserves a life beyond its brief stint at the Rattlestick Theater.