Seth Numrich, left, and Wendy vanden Heuvel perform in "Slipping." (Ryan Miller / Capture Imaging )
Eli (played by rising theater star Seth Numrich) is an openly gay high school student who has been transplanted from the San Francisco Bay Area to Iowa after the tragic death of his father.
His English professor mother (a gritty Wendy vanden Heuvel) has accepted a job in the Midwest and is eager to start a new life with her son. Eli, feeling like the freak newcomer at his school, resents her for inflicting this culture shock on him but even more he resents her for trying to be happy.
"Slipping," written and directed by Daniel Talbott, might sound like just another fish out of water story, but the play is far more psychologically complex — perhaps too complex at times for its own good.
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This is a study of the noxious consequences of homophobia, the way shame can leave a poisonous residue of self-hatred even in those who have the courage to be out and proud. But it's also a reminder that intimacy for gay people is an individual struggle that isn't magically resolved by stepping out of the closet.
No matter your sexual orientation, the adults who raise you — those flawed, muddling, ever-disappointing creatures known as human beings — upload their software for loving onto your hard drive, a program never to be completely overwritten. Layered over this is the damage wrought by the bigotry and bullying that gay youth are especially susceptible to. And then, of course, there's the legacy of secrecy that is unavoidable when something as natural as sexual orientation is stigmatized.
In covering such enormous ground, Talbott fails to zero in on a driving dramatic action. He wants to capture life in a rapid succession of scenes, many of them filmic in their quiet behavioral focus, but he becomes entranced by his characters' mute pain and his story, traveling back and forth in time, is just too amorphous to sustain momentum.
The production at Elephant Stages' Lillian Theatre, representing the first Los Angeles outing by New York's Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, holds us in its grip largely through the intensity of the acting on display. Talbott's characters are nuanced even when they are stunted, as is the case with Maxwell Hamilton's Chris, Eli's volatile friend from San Francisco who cannot accept his own sexuality and punishes Eli for his. With or without adult language to guide them, the performers relentlessly pursue their emotional quarry.
Numrich, who deservedly earned plaudits for his work on Broadway in "War Horse" and "Golden Boy," reprises the role he played in Rattlestick's 2009 off-Broadway production. He's a marvel of adolescent illumination.
This Juilliard-trained actor, one of the most exciting young talents in the theater today, brings a rumbling unpredictability to Eli, never settling for the shorthand of stereotype, always careful to preserve the character's unique fingerprints. (Numrich, who is leaving the production after Saturday night's performance to begin rehearsals for the London revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth" with Kim Cattrall, will be replaced by Wyatt Fenner, who was a standout as the Mormon missionary in South Coast Repertory's recent production of "The Whale.")
As Jake, Eli's newfound Iowa friend who becomes something much more, MacLeod Andrews is deeply affecting in his portrayal of a character who has more difficulty accepting his sexuality than Eli but far less difficulty in showing love. In dramatizing this distinction, Talbott has (for all his play's unwieldiness) not only given his actors rich material to inhabit but he has made a contribution to gay literature.
"Slipping." Elephant Stages' Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends May 5. Tickets, $34. Information: (800) 838-3006 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/335220. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
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