You might not think an encounter between a high school vice principal and a student would hold much promise for a riveting drama, but you’d be very wrong in the case of The North Pool, a 2011 play by Rajiv Joseph currently onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse. For no explained reason Khadim (Eli Gelb), a privileged transfer student of Middle Eastern descent, has been summoned to the drab, institutional office of Dr. Danielson (Ted Deasy) on the day before spring break. Played in real time (85 minutes), the show begins with a cat-and-mouse game as the tenacious vice principal asks leading questions, claiming “I’m not trying to be a tough guy” (he really is), while Khadim is guardedly evasive.
Their conversation has occasional amusing moments of intergenerational difference and cultural division, but it becomes increasingly adversarial as more information is exposed and motives are revealed. Danielson likens people to onions: You can keep peeling, but you never quite get to the essence. What we learn is that the pair has a troubling connection surrounding the painful circumstances of Khadim’s troubled friend Lea’s suicide, a linkage rooted in misunderstanding that takes numerous unexpected twists and turns before it’s resolved.
The play’s title references an antiquated system of tunnels leading to a bomb shelter, euphemistically dubbed a “pool.” It’s a metaphor for the secrets they wrestle with and a desire for safety that’s likely illusory. Joseph, a 1996 Miami University grad, is a successful playwright; his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a runner up for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
Deasy and Gelb, directed by Playhouse artistic associate Timothy Douglas, illuminate Joseph’s concise, moving script. Deasy has the patronizing professional manner of a man who deals with teens, but his façade slips eventually, revealing disgruntled complexity and torment. Gelb provides a wonderfully nuanced portrait of 18-year-old Khadim: At first he seems to be a squirmy, spoiled kid who’s always had his way. As more details are revealed, we see a complicated and sensitive young man.
The North Pool leads you down a circuitous path. More than once you’ll think you know what’s behind this conversation and where it’s headed. The dramatically moving conclusion is likely not what you’ll be suspecting — making this a most satisfying drama.
THE NORTH POOL, presented Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through June 1.