By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by James Yost
Produced by Interrobang Theatre Project
Playing at The Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago
A Well-Made Mystery for a Modern High School
Followers of up-and-coming American playwrights will be familiar with Rajiv Joseph’s experiments with a variety of dramatic styles. Though known for highly symbolic and fantastic works like Gruesome Playground Injuries, and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, in his 2013 The North Pool, Joseph proved that the old fashioned naturalistic play, in which most of the action has already occurred and the characters are simply teasing information out of each other, still has legs. Of course, it helps the play enormously to have a production such as that of Interrobang Co-Artistic Director James Yost and his two perfectly cast actors. The North Pool keeps the audience in diabolical suspense, as a shady duo of high school student and vice-principal match wits against a backdrop of death and corruption.
The play starts innocuously enough. Senior and recent transfer student Khadim Osman (Salar Ardebili) enters the vice-principal’s office (set and props very realistically designed by Greg Pinsolneault and Mealah Heidenreich), unsure of why he’s been called in. It’s the end of the last day before Spring Break, and when the vice-principal, Dr. Danielson (Rob Frankel) enters, he seems to need a moment to remember who Khadim is. Dr. Danielson starts by asking Khadim the kind of questions that a counselor concerned about a new student normally would—whether he’s making friends, whether he’s interested in school activities, how things are at home—which would only be slightly intrusive, is not for something accusatory in the older man’s tone. It turns out that Khadim has an unexcused absence, which Dr. Danielson would like him to serve detention for right now, in the office, and that Dr. Danielson is aware that Khadim’s every answer has been a lie. Khadim is unimpressed.
A smart interrogator, Dr. Danielson doesn’t give away what he already knows and what he’s searching for answers to, but there have been a number of terrible occurrences that have aroused his suspicions lately. There’s been dangerous sabotage, and a bomb threat during the class Khadim skipped—it would be racist to suspect him of that on such flimsy evidence, of course, but a student named Lea who both Dr. Danielson and Khadim were close to committed suicide recently, and Dr. Danielson knows that something very creepy was going on between her and Khadim. He also knows that Khadim’s parents are in Saudi Arabia currently, and the teen is unsupervised. And then there’s the fact that he’s at their mediocre public school at all, when his parents are such wealthy cosmopolitans and he had previously been somewhere so prestigious. Khadim really doesn’t care for this line of questioning, especially since there are even nastier rumors going around the school about Dr. Danielson’s relationship with Lea. The young man also speaks more languages, has far more money, connections with serious clout, and will ultimately win any real struggle between them in court, if not in this office.
The twists of Rajiv’s script quickly make clear that the audience can’t trust either man, and is better off watching the spectacle of their verbal duel than rooting for one of them over the other. The actors’ performances make that an easy task, though. Frankel’s Dr. Danielson is a man who has come to realize that sarcasm is the closest he’ll ever come to regaining his youthful cool. His mocking references to a drug-dealer’s nickname and slang terms are infuriating, and he knows it. Yet, there’s something very insecure in him as well, and that this interrogation is his personal project which nobody else even knows about becomes more alarming as time passes. Ardebili’s Khadim seems like a normal, cocky teenager, who feels oppressed under the capricious administrator’s condescension and exercises in petty power. But knowing more about the truth of the situation, he also labors under intense anguish, and despises Dr. Danielson’s wrong conclusions and presumptiveness in a way that’s hard to shrug off. James Yost’s tight pacing ensures there’s not a dead spot in the play, and though the volume seldom rises, the combat is intense.
Although The North Pool is outwardly similar to a well-made play, down to the last-minute revelation of a secret intercepted message, Joseph left some significant loose ends. Those red herrings could either bring the play closer to the messy realm of reality, or be a disappointing dismissal of the issue an audience member believed the play was going to use as its main problem. The play’s title refers to an old bomb-shelter beneath the school, and its atmosphere is the crucial component of its dramatic success. Old school buildings often have bizarre architectural features, such as the network of long-forgotten tunnels once accessible through Dr. Danielson’s office, which fire the imaginations of modern students. Those vaguely gothic fantasies are the kind of sinister feel Joseph is going for here, and audience’s enjoyment of the play will most likely depend a lot on their ability to tap into those memories. Yost’s production is more about guilt than horror, though, and the ending is quite affecting. Joseph’s stories tend to focus on young people, but The North Pool chillingly examines regret from both youthful and middle-aged perspectives.
Reviewed May 29, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The North Pool’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago.