With a confrontational streak of fire-red in his hair, Eli cannot help but be noticed when he shows up in an Iowa high school, an unwilling transplant from San Francisco, where his father recently died. Even as he draws attention to himself, Eli does not let people in easily, using a defense mechanism of glibness, mixed with snark, to keep them at bay -- starting with his mother.
But Eli, the center of Daniel Talbott's affecting play "Slipping," which is receiving its Baltimore premiere from Iron Crow Theatre Company, cannot disguise the fact that he's a romantic at heart. He would love to be loved -- if only he could believe that such a thing is possible.
He is still trying to get over his clandestine affair with Chris, the jock-jerk he left behind in California. (Eli is not the first, and certainly not the last, person of either gender or orientation so desperate to be thought desirable that he will tolerate an abusive relationship.)
Given his emotional scars, Eli is not about to fall for Jake, the apple-pie-and-baseball kid he meets in his new school. No way that could ever lead to anything, no way Jake could be the real deal. Eli, even at his tender age, is convinced he'll never be trustful again. "I hate things you can't take back," he says.
Talbott's concise drama manages to deal with all of this teen angst persuasively in "Slipping" (part of that persuasion comes from his keen ear for how young people talk and act).
Plot strands that threaten to dissolve into pure soap opera get nicely detoured by unexpected little twists so that incidents, mood and, especially, dialogue, ring true. And there's just enough of a things-get-better glimmer underneath it all to make the experience even more satisfying.
The playwright has structured the work out of short scenes, many seeming to last only about 90 seconds. And he spices the flow with an effective spin on such a well-worn theatrical device as the break-the-fourth-wall monologue, treating it like open mike night. (Another well-worn device -- nudity -- may be employed a little more often than strictly necessary.)
Iron Crow has given this tale of young dreams and disappointments an impressive production at the Baltimore Theatre Project, fluidly directed by Steven J. Satta and designed by Daniel Ettinger.
Tanner Medding does admirable work as Eli. He makes the character genuine and sympathetic, especially in the scenes when Eli is at his most vulnerable, recalling the father who smelled of Old Spice or the tortured relationship with Chris (vibrantly played by Christopher H. Zargarbashi). Medding seems very much a young actor with a future.
Rich Buchanan could use more nuance and flair as Jake, but he is quite effective when the drama intensifies. Michele Minnick gives a natural, telling performance as Eli's mother, a woman anxious to get on with her own life, eager to help Eli get on with his.
Even the stagehands who facilitate the scene-changing are caught up in the action, sometimes cheekily, sometimes as sensitive observers. It's a neat way to point out how we're all in danger of slipping, one way or another, and could all use a little help hanging on.