In Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl” at the Geffen Playhouse, 17-year-old Becky (Rae Gray) comes to visit her Uncle Sterling (William Petersen), who left the U.S. years earlier for Costa Rica.
She’s freaked out by his primitive jungle lifestyle, which is charmingly evoked by Richard Woodbury’s sound design and the tropical leaves that hang above Takeshi Kata’s delicate, bare-bones set, configured tennis-court style with the audience on either side (an approach that heightens naturalism but also impedes sightlines).
“Where are your doors?” Becky demands. He takes them off during the dry season, Sterling explains. So there’s nothing to stop parrots, iguanas, monkeys and even deadly coral snakes from coming in, but “they’re not really interested.”
Sterling is far less comfortable with human visitors, though. As he replies with a shrug when the bumptious Becky asks if he’s a loner, “Well, you don’t move to the jungle unless. ...”
Unlike the animals, Becky is very interested in her uncle, whom she hasn’t seen in nine years. She wants to know why his marriage failed, why he left the States, and why her father, his brother-in-law, doesn’t like him.
Sterling, though more reluctantly, is also curious about Becky, who is herself fleeing trouble at home. She has been suspended from school. Another student, cruelly called “Slowgirl,” was catastrophically injured at a party, and Becky may be responsible.
During their time together, the two engage in a kind of psychological striptease, peeling away one another’s defenses layer by layer. The dramatic approach may not be groundbreaking, but the skillful pace of the revelations keeps the action engrossing and thought-provoking as it moves from the initial awkwardness into increasingly tense, emotional terrain, exploring questions of character and fate, the many ways tragedy can unmoor a life and the power of family to both wound and heal.
Although not technically a comedy, this two-hander, beautifully directed by Geffen artistic director Randall Arney, mines considerable humor from the contrast between its two characters: Sterling is withdrawn and fearful, Becky uninhibited and pushy. The well-crafted performances — the actors are members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which co-produced this show and where it ran last summer — make the tried-and-true odd-couple setup unusually fresh.
Petersen, making his L.A. theatrical debut though familiar to “CSI” fans as Gil Grissom, the character he played for nine seasons, delivers a restrained, thoughtful Sterling. His every gesture — wringing his hands, fidgeting with his glasses, starting, blushing — conveys trepidation and hesitancy; his every statement trails off uncertainly.
“Dude, would it kill you to finish a sentence?” Becky snaps at him. Petersen’s Sterling is a scrupulously decent man whose current isolation is just the latest manifestation of a lifelong terror of engagement. Still, although the role is written a bit monolithically — even his eyesight, which has “convergence problems,” conforms to character — there are hints in the text of a more disreputable side that Petersen, rather disappointingly, doesn’t explore. A little more Grissom couldn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, motor-mouthed Becky blurts out questions, observations and confessions without heed for the sensibilities she might offend or wounds she might open. Her bluntness and insensitivity occasionally make her seem slightly deranged rather than lovably free-spirited.
But Pierce has caught the rhythms of teenage girl-speak, and Gray, a credentialed actress and University of Chicago student (no relation to this reviewer) revels in them. Her wonderfully gravelly voice and quirky delivery make Becky thoroughly entertaining. And the characters’ developing bond despite their differences is touching and persuasive.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 27.
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or https://www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 90 minutes