Daniel Talbott's terrific new play is a complex and engaging love story between two teenage boys in Iowa.
Seth has recently relocated from San Francisco to Iowa with his mother, Jan (Meg Gibson), following the death of his father. Eli is the odd man out at high school, yet is befriended by fellow student and baseball jock Jake (MacLeod Andrews). But while the two boys' friendship soon blossoms into something more, Eli remains haunted by the abusive relationship he had with his former lover, Chris (Adam Driver).
Numrich delivers a layered and often wrenching performance as Eli. The flashback scenes with Chris show Eli as shy and tentative, while the present-day scenes with Jake display a bitterness and aggression that is often aimed at pushing Jake away, rather than letting him get too close. Both strategies expose Eli's underlying vulnerability, and Numrich isn't afraid of making his character extremely unlikable at times. And yet, he also makes Eli worth rooting for, particularly as Talbott reveals more and more about the character's self-destructive and damaged psyche.
As the men in Eli's life, Andrews brings a bright burst of energy to his portrayal that both contrasts and complements Numrich's more subdued take on Eli. The two actors have a very palpable and believable sexual chemistry with one another, and the sheer exuberance that Andrews displays as Jake and Eli cavort naked in bed is smile-inducing. Driver delivers an unpredictable performance that always has a hint of danger behind it. Chris takes his internalized homophobia out on Eli, constantly belittling and threatening his lover. "Every time I see you at school I want to just rip you apart," he tells him in one of the play's most agonizing encounters that exposes both the love and hate that bind Chris and Eli together, and demonstrates quite plainly how their relationship cannot possibly end well.
Gibson's Jan is a strong woman who would like to be stronger. She wants to love and understand her son, but he blames her for cheating on his father and possibly motivating his death. Mother and son have a tumultuous relationship that Eli describes as follows: "I'd say we're like really good business partners that sometimes greatly surprise each other."
Talbott's use of language is often achingly lyrical, but also disturbing, such as when Eli describes a fantasy he has of Chris swimming out into the ocean with cuts all over his body. "I'd think of a shark falling in love with him the way I did. His body. His blood. I'd listen to it devour him. His screams being sucked up into the surf and air." And yet, the playwright also includes unexpected moments of humor, from dirty jokes to tender and playful character-driven interactions, that lighten the play.