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Events in society are progressing so rapidly a mere four years after the 2009 premiere of Daniel Talbott’s Slipping, it already has begun to take on the trappings of a period piece. The first local appearance by the many-Obied Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, occupying the Lillian Theatre space in Hollywood, it shows off the skill and talent of the company while being notably short on innovation and originality.
Eli (Seth Numrich), a troubled adolescent wrenched from San Francisco to Iowa after the death of his father, feels acutely unloved yet cannot accept it when offered. A classically disaffected teenager, Eli is shy but egocentric, a proud rebel who shows off how much he wants to be left alone. He listens to Joy Division, Violent Femmes, the Velvet Underground, Moby Grape and Pink Floyd. (Was there no indigenous music of adolescent alienation in 2007 other than iconic oldies?) And for Eli, as for his academic mother (Wendy vanden Heuvel), the less-in-love romantic partner controls the relationship. An aggressively closeted “idiot baseball player,” Chris (Maxwell Hamilton), in San Francisco rejects him ostensibly at his parents’ insistence, while in Iowa, as the first gay love of average jock Jake (MacLeod Andrews), he breaks the ingenuous young man’s heart with his own refusal of sincere affection.
Much of the play aspires to be representative of common gay experience and to relate it accessibly to issues of emotional development shared by all. By any reasonable measure it succeeds, though at this juncture the boundaries of possible thematic material have expanded so exponentially that it seems something short of ambitious. Fassbinder 40 years ago already was way ahead of the relatively mundane compass of this exercise, as have so many since. Instead, though it does grow subtler as it progresses, too much of its attention pursues the homelier virtue of anthemic sensitivity.
Even so, the quality of the writing maintains a high level of behavioral observation, makes its points deftly without untoward highlighting and gives the actors room to supply considerable illuminating detail, even when they devolve into testosterone-fueled fidgets. The playwright, himself an actor, also directs, and he knows how to orchestrate the dramatic values to best advantage.
Numrich (Golden Boy, War Horse, The Merchant of Venice on Broadway) and Andrews reprise their New York roles with the easy grace of genuine star actors, and Hamilton, in his professional debut, displays great promise for more challenging parts. Vanden Heuvel, in appropriately the most complex role as the only adult onstage, conveys a great range of emotional information and complex conflict while preserving the necessary distance any parent of a struggling child must attempt.
Because of intervening commitments to a cable pilot and a London production, Numrich, for whom the part was written, will only play Eli through the April 20 performance. Thereafter, Wyatt Fenner, most recently seen as the rogue Mormon missionary in South Coast Repertory’s The Whale, will assume the role, with understudy Brett Donaldson also filling in.)
Venue: Lillian Theatre, Hollywood (runs through May 5)
Cast: Seth Numrich, MacLeod Andrews, Wendy vanden Heuvel, Maxwell Hamilton
Playwright-director: Daniel Talbott
Set designer: John McDermott
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Sound designer: Janie Bllard
Costume designer: Rachel Myers
Projection designer: Kaitlyn Pietras
Producers: Addie Johnson-Talbott, Gaalan Michaelson
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