The North Poolby Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Pride is a sin."
Remi Sandri; photo: Kevin Sprague
There is a power in language and in the connections that are wrought through its proper use. Playwright Rajiv Joseph understands that different people approach language from different points of view, separate rhythms, alternate phrases and approaches. In his fine play, "The North Pool," he explores the way a relationship can be exposed, the way secrets can be revealed and concealed, the way that people can find a meeting place through their use of words. On the newly minted St. Germain Stage, at Barrington Stage Company’s newly named Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center a play with fewer phrases than are needed to disclose this location is giving audiences a chance to come to grips with how words frame people and how a frame may be only a loose conjunction of adverbs and adjectives amplifying verbs that come into the open through their relationship with nouns.
But enough of this. This is technical and foolish and this play is greater than the sum of its tiny parts. There are three characters, one who cannot appear but ultimately takes over the play and the two men who have felt complicity in her decisions that have shaped their new world. Dr. Danielson, middle-aged, a vice-Principal at Sheffield high school is first seen as a man determined to always do the right thing regarding the students in his school. Khadim Asmaan, an 18 year old transfer student is a compliant teenager, eager to assure his elders that all is right within his world. Neither one seems to have a trouble in the world.
Joseph, the playwright, is concerned here with the secrets we all conceal, sometimes even from ourselves. With his verbal wiles he can convince us that both of these men are acting in accord with their consciences. What we learn in the 78 minutes one-act play is that no one can really be sure of their own feelings in certain situations and no one can completely hide behind a facade that is made of human flesh; that substance is too malleable.
Barrington Stage Company is touting this play as a "thriller" and it is certainly not that. It is a play in which tension and anxiety play major roles in shaping our vision of these two men. It is a play about ideals and about commitments to those ideals. Like "All My Sons," an early play by Arthur Miller that this company has just produced, this play is about the American Dream and the difficulties of holding to it in the face of real tragedy and disaster. In both plays lives are wasted in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. In this one the tragedy is magnified by the guilt that two men can feel for the same tragic moment and their mutual need for absolution, or at least for forgiveness.
Neither one, it would seem, has the power to truly forgive himself for the simple mistakes invoked in the language of the needy. It seems right to consider this a modern melodrama, without leering villains, and without maidens tied to the railroad tracks, but a strong, steamy melodrama where the next move is always unexpected and the next reaction is exactly right.
Remi Sandri plays Dr. Danielson with a familiar scholastic air and a pocket protector attitude. He makes the man into a familiar stereotype, albeit one who oversteps the top end of caricature for a time. But in short order Sandri moves Danielson into the forefront of terrorist activism.
He becomes a veritable Javert, the policeman who pursues Jean Valjean through the Paris sewers to get at the answers and solve the crime; and Javert is a terrorist, be sure of that. Sandri’s Danielson is like a good attorney who only asks the questions for which he holds the answers. He anticipates no difficulty in getting what he wants here and he almost succeeds, but not without some personal soul-searching and self-declared realization as well. Sandri plays this out with a look of surprise on his face and a quick shift in his dynamic body language. His character is a former wrestler and the actions of wrestlers are part of what create him as the man presented in this play. Sandri is wiry and he is very believable in this part. You can almost feel the sinews in his hands and arms flexing for action at times.
As his luckless foil and then his victim is the student Khadim, played by Babak Tafti. This young actor’s extraordinary voice, mellow and smooth as a fine Kentucky bourbon and, now and then, exhibiting the stentorian tones of Laurence Olivier, covers the truths his character harbors. For a while it is pleasant just to listen to Tafti and the play gives him that opportunity to let us like him for his voice.
But when the writing darkens into revelations, Tafti takes his character into the shady places and he does this with an animal grace that is mesmerizing. This is a performance to see and see again.
Babak Tafti; photo: Kevin Sprague
Sandri & Tafti; photo: Kevin Sprague
Together these two men present a rare picture, a cleaned Rembrandt with its solid figures facing off across a table, or a Tintoretto-like confrontation of angels against a backdrop of bright blue and pure white. There is a majesty in the playwrights words that allow these two to do their best work in presenting a difficult situation that only comes to light near the end of the play.
"Nobody’s contained in a file, isn’t that right? Nobody’s contained in a rumor. Or a census, or an evaluation or diagnosis or... anything when you think about it. And if that’s so, then all we really have left is perception, isn’t it?" In these words Danielson expresses the largest of Rajiv Joseph’s ideas in this play. Having seen another of his plays this year [Animals Out of Paper, at the Chester Theatre] I would have to wonder if this isn’t the underlying theme of this playwright’s work. Time and more exposure will tell.
Brian Prather’s excellent set and Amy Clark’s appropriate clothing provide director Giovanna Sardelli with the perfect encapsulation of man and boy, situation and resolution. They are not trapped in a space, but neither one has the need to leave it in spite of the growing hostility that is, itself, trapped among the walls. Sardelli has seen fit to use every inch of the set and the space it contains to great effect. From moment to moment we cannot predict where a hotspot of anger or a cold and calculated bit of exposition may take place and she makes it all look natural and as perfectly shaped as the playwright’s words.
Discovery is what good theater is really about. Finding beauty in a show that has bored you in the past, or hearing a musical expressed with a new set of feelings, touching a new level of reality, these things are remarkable. It is equally wonderful to find a new playwright whose work is like a well-cut precious stone: it has an enchantment that holds you for the length of time you are exposed to it and then, later, it is all you want to talk about. This play has brought that sense home.
The North Pool plays at the St. Germain Stage located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through August 11. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.