THE NORTH POOL
A Middle Eastern youth. An extrajudicial detention. An interrogation that changes two lives.
High school is a dangerous place in Rajiv Joseph’s “The North Pool,” which gets its East Coast premiere beginning Thursday at Barrington Stage Company.
Joseph is best known for “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a dark, dreamlike look at post-invasion Iraq, which reached Broadway last year with Robin Williams as the talkative tiger. So audiences might be forgiven for expecting post-9/11 realpolitik from “The North Pool,” which pits an officious American against a sullen young Arab.
Joseph thought that’s where he was headed when he started writing, but the play evolved into something different.
“It started out very much as a parable for me. This was around the start of the Iraq war and Guantanamo and rendition and all these things. I thought I would talk about those things as I was writing, but that didn’t take me very far,” Joseph says. “I didn’t want my characters to be symbols of something else. I wanted them to be actual fully developed and complicated people, so I abandoned that pretty quickly.”
On a Friday afternoon, as his fellow students start spring break, 18-year-old Khadim Asmaan has been called to the office of the vice principal, Dr. Danielson. At first, the disciplinary matter at hand seems simple: an unexcused absence from Tuesday’s French class. But Dr. Danielson begins digging for the real reason Khadim left an exclusive private academy to attend this big public school, and what he knows about the epidemic of vandalism in recent weeks.
“You see a Middle Eastern kid and you see this principal, and you say, I know where this play is headed,” says director Giovanna Sardelli. “But that’s one of these themes, all of the assumptions we make about people.”
“Everyone is going to side with the kid at first,” Joseph says, “but my intention is that, beyond these kind of racial expectations, to keep a back-and-forth going about who is at fault here and who is the bad guy, if there is one.”
It’s gradually revealed that Dr. Danielson’s questions are not entirely official. The intrigue in a large American high school these days — fueled by sex and dope and cellphone videos — offers plenty of fodder for a psychological thriller.
Joseph drafted several versions of “The North Pool,” some involving as many as six characters and multiple scenes. It didn’t come alive, he says, until he settled on a two-character version that’s one long scene played in real time, for a weeklong workshop at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif. “It was a good exercise, and it turned out to be the answer I had been looking for. Dramatically and structurally, this was the way this play needed to be.”
Sardelli directed the world premiere of “The North Pool” in March 2011 at TheatreWorks. Remi Sandri played Dr. Danielson there and returns to the role in Pittsfield. New is Babak Tafti, a Yale School of Drama graduate, as Khadim.
Sardelli has directed five world premieres by Joseph since Theresa Rebeck, Joseph’s mentor in the Cherry Lane Theatre Mentor Project, first suggested they work together. The TheatreWorks premiere of “The North Pool” happened while Joseph was busy preparing “Bengal Tiger” for Broadway, and Sardelli relished the chance to work on it again with the playwright more available.
“It would kill me to have somebody else do it,” she says. “As exciting as that first production was, and I am beyond proud of it, Rajiv was missing. So, to get to come back to it, to go deeper, to have the questions answered . . . to have him in the room, I thought it would be fun and exciting, and it is.”
“The North Pool” has no ghosts or magical realism, unlike “Bengal Tiger” and some of Joseph’s other work. But the playwright wouldn’t call it strictly naturalistic, either.
“There are moments in the play that are decidedly unnaturalistic, and there’s a texture and symbolism to the place that they are in, and the school itself becomes a vivid character in it,” he says, crediting sound designer Daniel Kluger for creating a subtle, slightly surreal atmosphere of isolation surrounding the two men. “The things we hear are the click and clanging of old pipes, the air system coming on, almost like the groaning of the building around us.”
The son of an Indian father and an American mother, Joseph grew up in Ohio and attended a large public high school not unlike the one in the play, he says. “There was actually a little tiny pool on the second floor called the north pool that I, of course, named the play after,” he says. “It was a mysterious place that I didn’t even know existed until my sophomore year there. I walked up a stairway and I saw this pool sitting there, and I thought, what the heck is this? How did I not know that there was another body of water within this high school?”
Four more at ArtsEmerson
ArtsEmerson has added four productions to its 2012-13 season.
Boston’s Whistler in the Dark Theatre will present Ted Hughes’s translation of “Tales From Ovid” Nov. 8-18 in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center.
Hershey Felder will direct concert pianist Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” the true story of her mother, pianist and author Lisa Jura, and how her love of music survived the Nazis and her flight to London during the Blitz. The production will run Nov. 23-Dec. 16 in the Black Box.
The Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko will make its Boston debut with “Family Happiness.” Based on Tolstoy’s novel and directed by Fomenko, it will run Jan. 26-27, 2013, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Daniel Beaty will perform “Emergency,” a one-man mix of theater, poetry, and song, March 22-24, 2013, at the Cutler Majestic. Beaty portrays 40 characters in the play, which explores what happens when a slave ship appears near the Statue of Liberty.