High School is a model fascist state. That is abundantly clear in Rajiv Joseph's The North Pool, now making its New York premiere at The Vineyard Theatre. Yet Joseph, who was last represented on Broadway in 2011's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, is far too intelligent to merely rage against the machine. His new play adroitly shows how power dynamics can turn on a dime in an age when sex, death, and money constantly perform a delicate dance.
The North Pool takes place at Sheffield High School, just after the final bell before spring break 2007. The vice-principal, Dr. Danielson (Stephen Barker Turner), has called Khadim Asmaan (Babak Tafti), an 18-year-old student of middle-eastern origin, into his office to discuss his absence during an eighth period fire drill. This is all a ruse however, as it quickly becomes clear that Dr. Danielson has a much greater beef with Khadim than truancy. Both men were touched by the earlier suicide of a troubled student and are looking for answers. Also, Dr. Danielson wants to know just exactly what Khadim has been keeping in his isolated basement locker. The interrogator becomes the interrogated, and then switches back again, in this fast-paced confrontation, which touches on issues of class, race, sex, and power.
The tall and handsome Babak Tafti is perfect as Khadim, right down to his posh Christiane Amanpour accent (props to dialect coach Stephen Gabis). With each condescending sneer, it is easy to believe that he is the son of a globetrotting Iranian businessman, fluent in six languages, the product of exclusive private academies all over the world. Any goodwill he might receive from anti-authoritarian audience members sours once he reveals what a snob he is.
In contrast to Khadim's worldly sophistication, there is an appropriately Midwestern feel to Stephen Barker Turner's Dr. Danielson. He's a harried baby boomer, fiercely proud of his school's crumbling Cold War infrastructure, and suspicious of the encroaching world of the 21st century, which seems to value diversity and change over tried-and-true loyalty and work ethic – unlike the time period that spawned workhorses like him. Despite his personal bitterness, he is a fount of clichéd wisdom, a walking Dale Carnegie book that makes you want to vomit with each false epiphany.
Dr. Danielson's cringe-worthy soundbytes make him seem right at home in Donyale Werle's dollhouse set, which is festooned with cheesy Successories® posters, a large topographical map of the United States, and other such trappings of American secondary education. Khadim seems more out of place, but this is by design: he never dreamed that he would be spending his eighteenth year in such plebeian surroundings.
Thanks to Giovanna Sardelli's deft and unobtrusive direction, both actors match each other point-for-point and never miss a beat in this constantly shifting tale of scandal and school politics, which easily serves as a mirror for our larger national political discourse.
The genius of this play is that, what starts out as a satire on the age of American paranoia, in which every minor state employee is an interrogator on Homeland—this is a clever conceit, but could never sustain itself for a full 90 minutes—transforms into an intense psychological drama, a nuclear standoff between two players who could easily annihilate each other with their respective weapons of mass destruction. It's like David Mamet's Oleanna, but much smarter.
A masterful playwright, Joseph has captured intrigue with brevity. The North Pool will keep you talking and thinking for a long time, as this play and its timely themes continue to reemerge all around you.