It may take you a while to get past the contrived setup (and the gimmicky title) of “A Guide for the Homesick.’’
But I’d counsel patience when it comes to Ken Urban’s one-act drama, a probing, multilayered study of guilt as both a terrible individual burden and as an unlikely source of connection.
“Homesick,’’ now receiving its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company under the astute direction of Colman Domingo, steadily gains power and ultimately more than rewards your attention — not least because McKinley Belcher III delivers one of the most searing performances in recent memory on a local stage.
Previously seen at the Huntington in the stage adaptation of “Invisible Man’’ as well as Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People,’’ Belcher portrays the outwardly jovial Teddy, who’s from Roxbury, in his 30s, and works in finance. Having traveled to Amsterdam, Teddy has befriended, and is now doing his best to seduce, Jeremy, a Newton native and Harvard graduate in his early 20s.
Jeremy, played by Samuel H. Levine, has recently completed a six-month stint as a volunteer at a health clinic in Uganda. He keeps insisting, unpersuasively, that he’s not gay, and he’s touchy about reminders of his youth. (When Teddy teasingly calls Jeremy “some kind of Doogie Howser,’’ the younger man doesn’t get the reference.)
Strangers before their meeting on this evening in an Amsterdam bar in early 2011, Teddy and Jeremy are both strangely immobilized, psychologically and even physically.
Teddy’s cellphone keeps ringing over and over while he and Jeremy are getting to know each other in his hotel room, but each time, after glancing at the caller ID, Teddy doesn’t answer it. The jittery Jeremy, for his part, claims to have missed his flight home, but there’s reason to doubt that assertion. When Teddy suggests that his parents must be proud of his volunteer work, Jeremy offers this cryptic rejoinder: “When they find out what happened, no one back home is gonna be proud of me. . . . Things got really bad.’’
What happened to these guys? What is it that each of them doesn’t want to talk about but is clearly tormented by?
“Homesick’’ is in no hurry to answer those questions as Teddy and Jeremy engage in a verbal dance of evasion and almost-revelation. The 75-minute drama is at its weakest when you can sense playwright Urban stalling for time. In the main, though, “Homesick’’ is notable for its taut construction.
In periodic flashbacks, deftly handled by director Domingo and by the actors, we see two figures from the recent past who loom large in the memories of Teddy and Jeremy. One is Ed (vividly portrayed by Levine), Teddy’s best friend and traveling companion to Amsterdam. Ed is a manic depressive who kept talking obsessively about a whale. The other is Nicholas (played by Belcher), a gay man who was treated at the clinic in Kampala where Jeremy worked and was involved in a highly secret affair with a married man. The dangerously homophobic climate in Nicholas’s community is underscored by the chant his church’s pastor led enthusiastic congregants in: “Sodomy Out of Africa!’’
Urban, who is the head of MIT’s playwriting program and previously taught at Harvard, is also the author of “A Future Perfect,’’ presented at SpeakEasy Stage Company two years ago. In that play he demonstrated gifts for recognizing how much weight can attach to the choices we make, for delving into the intricacies of complicated personal relationships, and for crafting a powerful denouement — skills that remain very much intact in “Homesick.’’
Matters of guilt and responsibility have formed the basis of many a play or novel, from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ to “Crime and Punishment’’ to “All My Sons.’’ Guilt borne alone is a heavy burden. What “Homesick’’ asks, incisively and with emotional power, is whether that burden becomes lighter when you share it with another.
A GUIDE FOR THE HOMESICK
Play by Ken Urban. Directed by Colman Domingo. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 4. Tickets: From $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org