To glimpse Donyale Werle’s set for Rajiv Joseph’s The North Pool at the Vineyard is to return to the futility, pettiness, and misery of high school. (And I actually liked my high school.) Joseph locates this contrived two-hander in the office of Vice Principal Dr. Danielson (Stephen Barker Turner). The sight of his shelves and walls—those binders, clipboards, files, and Successories posters—may plunge the doughtiest theatergoer into paroxysms of adolescent despair.
Unfortunately, little in the script rivals the evocative power of this room. As the bell rings for spring break, Danielson summons new student Khadim (Babak Tafti) for a chat. The ostensible reason: Khadim has skipped French class. But the vice principal suspects the senior of more sinister acts—vandalism, terrorism, and abetting the death of a student. Danielson may seem to have the upper hand—he’s older, white, and degreed. But he’s also a loser and a bit of a racist. He tells Khadim, “It can be difficult when you have a different background.” To which the richer, more worldly Khadim makes the faux-naif reply, “You mean coming from private school?”
If this seems like material for an electric pas de deux, it never quite galvanizes. Though Turner and Tafti, under Giovanna Sardelli’s direction, are both strong performers, a stilted script hampers them. Joseph has shown himself a talented playwright with dramas large (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) and small (Animals Out of Paper). Yet the interactions here seem forced and often factitious. Would Danielson really continue to pronounce Khadim’s name with the plosive “K” rather than the fricative “H” once corrected? Would the threat of detention keep Khadim in the room so long? At a few moments, the action threatens to spark into something more stimulating, but the script toes lines rather than crossing them, and keeps the stakes surprisingly low. For all its implied threat and menace, the waters in The North Pool run pretty shallow.