Practicing the subjunctive begets sexual attraction in Craig Higginson's "The Girl in the Yellow Dress," a talky, clunky and pretentious South African play wherein a French-Congolese student with an unspecified past shows up at the Parisian home of an upmarket young Englishwoman, a feisty but nonetheless delicate emotional flower who's set out a shingle as an English teacher while really running away from what seems to be a veritable plethora of trauma, depressions and dysfunctions.
This interracial pair, defined by their race, talk the language of rhetoric — endlessly stretching the metaphor of the night — even as their mutual desires and needy complexities come to mean more than his past participles and her acts of gently firm correction.
That, I think, is the idea behind the script, which is receiving its American premiere at the Next Theatre. Joanie Schultz's miscast and milquetoast production does not contain much sexual (or any other kind of) tension, not least because you simply cannot believe that these two characters would be much intrigued by each other.
Schultz is lucky to have the formidable Carrie Coon, an actress of great complexity and vulnerability, in the leading role of teacher Celia (who has some mightily nice digs for a supposedly transitory ESL teacher), but her pairing with the young actor Austin Talley simply does not work on any level. Based on Celia's lines ("Should I be calling the police?"), you get the sense that Talley's gentle, hesitant Pierre is supposed to be intermittently menacing, a quality that his performance does not even remotely convey. Nor does it imply the kind of complexity that an off-beat yet hyper-articulate woman like Celia would find a pre-requisite to making herself so vulnerable to one of her two students.
Higginson clearly wants to explore how two needy people with troubled pasts struggle to find some mutual balm and a solid connection, even as their very different histories work against them. In subtler plays, this kind of exploration of racial and class identity can offer insights. And, to its credit, "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" wants to probe these issues through an international geo-political prism. But time and again, it feels like our potential understanding of two individuals is undermined by the thudding thematic agenda of the playwright, who constantly wants us to see them as victims of something bigger than themselves. To put it another way, it's a reductive reach, an example of dated dramaturgical thinking, that never feels like it adds much to our comprehension of actual human interaction. Not without a third character, anyway.
This disconnect is exacerbated by an uneven production that is inattentive to the rhythms of the piece.
Big shifts — such as when Celia suddenly confesses aspects of her past — feel inorganic and tough to believe in that moment. Crises come out of nowhere. Everything lurches. Nothing seems to flow. At one point, we see a spotlight on a bunch of flowers. At another, the ever-subtle spotlight returns to show them having wilted. Like the viewer.
When: Through Feb. 26
Where: Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$40 at 847-475-1875or nexttheatre.org