The concept of the American high school as a microcosm — a scaled-down petri dish version of broader society — is about as old as the cafeteria’s Salisbury steak. Rajiv Joseph’s new play The North Pool only uses that theme as a feint, sprinkling in post-9/11 metaphors and parallels as red herrings to throw you off the scent of what eventually amounts to a very character-based story.
The entirety of the two-actor production takes place in the office of Dr. Danielson (Stephen Barker Turner), a high-school vice principal whose faux-friendly demeanor and inspirational-poster aphorisms are instantly recognizable to anyone who attended a public school. The student currently in his administrative sights is Khadim Asmaan (Babak Tafti), a nervous-seeming transfer from a prestigious private academy. Asmaan sports a genteel accent and international mindset, as well as a permanent shoulder shrug that demonstrates his guarded nature.
Of course, neither of these men are what they seem to be. The play starts stripping away their facades so methodically you could probably time it by stopwatch. Danielson at one point refers to the two of them as ”onions,” and indeed by the end of the play both have peeled off all their layers and made the other cry. Joseph manages to bury a few surprises that he sets about unearthing — age and race seem at first to be the main dividing lines, yet it turns out class plays the biggest role — but by the time all the bones have been disinterred, the core conflict ends up being surprisingly inert. There is a third, unseen character whose presence haunts the play, but she comes off as extremely two-dimensional in absentia.
Donyale Werle’s set is an immaculate recreation of a high school office and both Turner and Tafti give intense performances as they circle one another and lock horns. Joseph’s ear for dialogue is well-tuned, and director Giovanna Sardelli’s staging helps move the production along with a strong momentum, but it still doesn’t quite hold your attention all the way until the final school bell rings. B