NEW YORK (AP) — Rajiv Joseph's play "The North Pool" opens with an 18-year-old high school student being sent to see the vice principal over what seems to be a skipped class.
Don't believe it. That's a red herring.
The real reason Khadim Asmaan has been asked to stop by Dr. Danielson's office is about why he left the cross-country team. No, that's not it either. Whether he knows anything about vandalism on campus? Or maybe his connection to the Middle East? Nope. Could it be about strange stuff in his locker? No, not that. Why he's even attending this sprawling public school in the first place? Keep looking.
Joseph's engrossing play, which opened Wednesday at The Vineyard Theatre, has more false clues than an Agatha Christie novel. It's a two-character mystery spread out over 85 minutes of real time in which both characters slowly drop their pretenses and reveal their common hurt.
"There's so much stuff about you that I just don't know," Dr. Danielson tells the nonplussed student early on. "We're onions. You and me. Everyone. Onions."
Babak Tafti makes an auspicious New York stage debut as Khadim, a transfer student from Syria whose initial pleasant and respectful demeanor masks a lot of anger. He's got the sarcasm and boiling hostility of a teen down cold.
Stephen Barker Turner plays the fussy, seriously uncool school bureaucrat who has turned the initial meeting between the two — the last day of classes before spring break 2007 — into an interrogation. He's prepared in his ill-fitting Dockers and fondness for clipboards, a perfect fit for Donyale Werle's shabby gray cinderblocked set that will instantly remind anyone of high school.
Giovanna Sardelli, who also has directed Joseph's "Animals Out of Paper," has helmed this one not by steadily increasing the temperature but more like building a roller coaster, with sharp spikes of tension followed by slackness. That tips the play into more melodrama than outright thriller.
Joseph's other credits include the fine off-Broadway "Gruesome Playground Injuries," which tells a love story through lovers' scars, and Broadway's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama about the Iraq war starring Robin Williams.
In this play, which has been seen before in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., Joseph briefly explores racial profiling, reverse racism, Cold War ghosts, sex tapes, class divisions and forgiveness, among other topics.
There are some abrupt transitions, some themes are picked up and then dropped awkwardly, and the windup takes too long while the second half seems rushed, but the ultimate payoff is splendid and moving. Just avoid the red herrings piling up.