“Are you accusing me of vandalizing the school?” challenges 18-year-old Sheffield High School student Khadim, early on in nationally acclaimed playwright Rajiv Joseph’s “The North Pool” at TheatreWorks.
The disingenuous Khadim (does he really not know what a prom is?) has been called into Vice Principal Danielson’s office (nicely detailed, realistic set by Erik Flatmo) just as the large public school closes for spring break.
Apparently Khadim cut French class last week and, once he confesses to that, he’s given immediate detention. But Danielson has more accusations in mind. By now the two are alone in the deserted building, and a sense of danger begins to emerge.
The complex, tightly constructed drama unspools in unexpected ways as Dr. Danielson proceeds to give the initially nonchalant but watchful Khadim the third degree.
“I know more than you think I know,” cautions the vice principal. “We watch you very carefully.” That warning proves to be true, in spades, as the riveting two-character play continues.
Playwright Joseph pits teenager and middle-aged man against each other in an ever-shifting power dynamic.
Khadim’s a sophisticated rich kid from the Middle East who transferred to “Sheffie” from a prestigious private school for mysterious reasons. He has questionable moral values and, it turns out, lots to hide. The bitter and disappointed Danielson is also covering up devastating secrets — the tipoff is his strained avuncular manner and the way he keeps popping Advil.
A nice metaphor for that atmosphere of covert despair is the “north pool” itself, the euphemism for a particular area deep in the school’s basement.
In revelatory ways, Joseph explores the outer limits of guilt and human connection across barriers of age, status and ethnicity. He has a keen ear for natural dialogue and an intuitive sense of how to ratchet up a two-person encounter and make it theatrical yet truthful, never contrived.
And he is blessed, in this world premiere, with a superb pair of actors: Adam Poss, whose Khadim, played with a slight and indefinable accent and an initial subtle bravado, is completely convincing, and Remi Sandri, equally affecting as the troubled Danielson.
Their performances, so carefully calibrated and deeply felt, surely owe much to director Giovanna Sardelli, whose staging is elegantly spare and smooth. Your heart is likely to break for both the boy and the administrator.
The North Pool
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 3
Tickets: $24 to $67
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org