Eli, the gay, teenage protagonist in erstwhile local playwright-actor Daniel Talbott’s new drama “Slipping,” onstage at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, is indeed “slipping.”
Or, more accurately, he has already slipped — into a morass of masochism followed by cruelty mixed with self-pity and rage.
Raised in the hip Bay Area, Eli is suddenly relocated, after his father’s death, to Iowa, where his mother has a new teaching job. There, he feels like a misfit, with his turquoise Mohawk, tattoos and penchant for photography instead of video games.
Set over several months in 2006, “Slipping” interweaves flashback scenes in the Bay Area — where he was in the thrall of a sadistic lover, Chris (Fernando Navales, scarily convincing as a kid in denial about being gay) — and the Midwest, where Eli is now befriended by good-natured, gentle Jake (an endearingly awkward Benjamin T. Ismail).
With Chris, Eli was shy and submissive, but in Iowa, as his friendship with Jake evolves, he’s the dominant one. In fact, he’s downright emotionally abusive and rejecting, just as Chris was with him.
Meanwhile, there’s his tattered relationship with his newly single mother. He claims she has always been a remote parent, so he’s sullen and hostile toward her, but that doesn’t jibe with what we see: Mom, at least as played by Stacy Thunes, in this Bay Area premiere, seems caring and concerned about her only son, even as she pursues her new life.
This is a delicate play exploring fraught relationships: between parent and child, between schoolmates, between very young lovers.
We’re following Eli’s journey through an unhappy and rebellious phase of adolescence, and all of us — gay or straight, male or female, young or old — have been there and can understand the pain.
But unfortunately, in Evan Johnson’s overly truculent, one-note depiction of Eli, we don’t really feel it viscerally. The necessary boyish vulnerability never shows through, so it’s hard to understand why he behaves in such self-defeating ways.
He’s miscast, too — clearly too old for the role, even though, as he says, he feels like a 49-year-old hooker in the body of an 18-year-old boy.
Plus the Jekyll and Hyde disconnect between Eli’s submissive posture with Chris, and his 180-degree switcheroo in the way he torments eager Jake, fails to ring true; neither the writing nor the acting, under Andrew Nance’s direction, provide a cohesiveness to the character. Eli is the big central figure that drives the play, but he’s a cipher.
Presented by New Conservatory Theatre Center
Where: 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 1
Tickets: $25 to $45
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org