This is a major moment for Rajiv Joseph, as his new play premieres at Theatreworks while “Gruesome Playground Injuries” runs off-Broadway and Pulitzer finalist “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” opens on Broadway. “The North Pool” won’t rival the latter’s profile. But this intense two-hander will easily attract future productions, as it touches on topical issues while providing actors opportunity for a shared tour-de-force. Chronicling one loaded teacher-student meeting, the play arguably piles on too much by the end, but is engrossing each step of the way.
Khalim (Adam Poss) has no idea why he’s been called into the office of Dr. Danielson (Remi Sandri), vice principal at the large public high school he’s recently transferred to from an exclusive private one. And for a long time the authority figure is exasperatingly cagey, using a minor infraction to keep the boy here on “detention” after everyone’s left for the start of spring break. But as Danielson alternately plays good cop and bad, catching Khalim in a series of lies, it’s clear the eventual real accusations are going to be serious — involving another student’s “tragedy” earlier this term.
Running an emotional gamut from early cat-and-mouse evasions to open hostility, the two finally arrive at partial exorcism of the guilt each feels for their part in the “troubled girl’s” suicide. This catharsis is potently handled by director Giovanna Sardelli and cast. But “The North Pool” — a more strictly realistic exercise than anything in this unpinnable, fast-rising playwright’s portfolio (“Animals Out of Paper,” “Gruesome Playground Injuries”) to date — nonetheless compromises that impact by laying on the preceding revelations a bit thick.
What we eventually learn about multilingual, multinational rich kid Khalim and background, and his entrepreneurial zeal, is almost too colorful. Dead girl Lea remains a cipher psychologically, but her related travails are line-pushingly lurid. Danielson, too, has some baroque skeletons in the closet, even if they’re only rumors. “The North Pool” would be a better play if these characters and their circumstances were, simply, more ordinary. The broader issues Joseph probes, however circuitously, are only obscured by narrative details of distracting exceptionality.
He certainly doesn’t need them. This play, taking place in real time in one routine institutional setting (excellent design by Erik Flatmo), is plenty vivid in the simplest, discomfiting interactions between student and Teach. Both actors are very good, Sandri in the more flamboyant role — Davidson is performing an elaborate, goading interrogation ritual he clearly relishes. But it’s Poss who’s most striking, his squirmy, annoyed silences building toward larger gestures of anger and defense.