PITTSFIELD — The office of Dr. Danielson, a vice principal at the large public high school that is the setting for Rajiv Joseph’s “The North Pool,’’ is a model of antiseptic efficiency and geometric precision.
Dr. Danielson’s desk is uncluttered. Books are neatly arrayed on a shelf. Papers are crisply filed in manila folders. Boxes are carefully stacked on the floor. An American flag hangs behind his high-backed chair. Not a thing seems out of place.
Before “The North Pool’’ is over, however, some mighty messy emotions will have been spilled in that office.
Now receiving its East Coast premiere in a superbly acted Barrington Stage Company production, this one-act, two-character drama does not go where you expect it to go. It must be said that there’s more than a bit of soap opera to the surprise twist Joseph introduces. The actions of a crucial (unseen) character strain credulity, and that character’s motivations are left unsatisfyingly murky.
This hole in Joseph’s script does not undo the play, though. Best known for “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,’’ which ran on Broadway, starring Robin Williams, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize two years ago, Joseph has a gift for penetrating to the depths of human nature. As he explores the question of guilt — in all its forms, for all its reasons — there’s barely a wasted word in “The North Pool.’’
Director Giovanna Sardelli creates a correspondingly taut atmosphere of hold-your-breath suspense that makes the play unfold like a courtroom thriller, in which the white, balding, middle-age Dr. Danielson (Remi Sandri) acts as a kind of prosecutor. Thrust into the role of defendant — at least at first — is Khadim (Babak Tafti), an 18-year-old transfer student from the Middle East whom Danielson summons to his office just as the school has emptied out for spring break.
Danielson is all overbearing joviality and overenunciated small talk, with a faint whiff of menace. He keeps glancing at Khadim’s backpack. When Danielson mentions that he was on the wrestling team in high school, it seems to discomfit both of them, for reasons that will later become clear. The vice principal’s clothes have a discount, off-the-rack look to them; Khadim, while casually dressed, exudes upper-middle-class comfort, and occasionally checks his smartphone.
Khadim seems puzzled by the vice principal’s interest in a protracted conversation, and he responds mainly in monosyllables. But anger starts to flare in his eyes, and he slowly begins to rise to the challenge, most pointedly when he corrects Danielson on a point of grammar. Still, the vice principal won’t shut up, and he won’t be dissuaded. As his focus intensifies, his agenda seems to become clear.
Danielson appears to be maneuvering the conversation toward an accusation of terrorism. Why else would he ask such probing questions about Khadim’s background (the young man was born in Damascus and considers himself Syrian, though his mother and father are from Iran), what line of work his parents are in, why he transferred so suddenly from prestigious Eagleton Academy, how he feels about the Iraq war, and what he knows about a recent spate of vandalism at the high school?
But the heart of the matter lies not in geopolitics. It lies somewhere deeper and more personal. As the playwright peels back the layers of these two very dissimilar people bit by careful bit, we discover that they have a gaping, unhealed wound in common.
“The North Pool’’ requires a pair of skilled actors to bring it off right, and the Barrington Stage production has cast such a duo. Tafti’s portrait of Khadim is deftly ambiguous and perfectly controlled, from his vocal inflections to his body language. Even as Khadim is drawn deeper and deeper into the verbal fencing match with the older man of authority, Tafti conceals more than he reveals and keeps us guessing until the very end.
As for Sandri, he is just extraordinary as Danielson. The vice principal is neither odious nor one-dimensional, but a human wilderness of conflicting emotions and motives. It turns out that fastidiously arranged office was the outer manifestation of a man who was struggling desperately to keep control. And when he loses it, the effect is overwhelming.