Amanda Peet, an actress whose conventional beauty is spiked with a refreshing awkwardness, has branched out into writing. Her play “The Commons of Pensacola” made a respectable showing at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2013 with a starry cast led by Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Peet’s latest effort, “Our Very Own Carlin McCullough,” is having its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. It too is a solid effort, helped along by the scrupulous acting of Mamie Gummer and Joe Tippett.
The play, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, demonstrates the strengths as well as some of the limitations of a drama composed out of nuanced acting moments. There aren’t many false notes, but the imaginative scope is somewhat hemmed in by scenes that loiter rather than leap.
Carlin is a tennis prodigy being steered by a single mom, Cyn (Gummer), and an unaffiliated male coach, Jay (Tippett), who has become emotionally entangled in her life. This triangle has a latent romantic charge that Peet deploys ambiguously, not wanting to make her drama a conventional rom-com or tale of predatory menace.
We first encounter Carlin at 10 (the adorable Abigail Dylan Harrison), a pint-sized phenom on the brink of racking up trophies. In the second act, we meet up with Carlin at 17 (played with brooding angst by Caroline Heffernan) as she grapples with a future that is no longer years away or quite what everyone once expected.
Carlin is the sun around which a pair of lost and nervous grown-ups revolve. Her growth spurts and ankle sprains are a cause of understandable consternation. But the dramatic focus is less on the realization of her carefully cultivated potential than on the way adults project their own disappointments and desires onto this feisty young baseliner.
Carlin’s dad, jokingly referred to by mother and daughter alike as “the sperm donor,” is out of the picture. Jay becomes a surrogate father, giving Carlin the tender attention and discipline Cyn is too harried to provide.
A good-looking bear of a man, Tippett’s Jay is a former junior champion who quickly flopped out of the tennis big leagues. His instruction of Carlin is hands-on in every sense. He turns her body to show her the proper hip rotation on her groundstrokes, and he offers his sweaty sweatshirt when she gets cold after evening practice.
Nothing seems egregiously amiss at first. Cyn, who fumblingly tried flirting with Jay to thank him for his support, appreciates that this bartender has made Carlin his pet project. Red flags are raised, however, after Cyn meets Salif (a sharp Tyee Tilghman), the Stanford tennis coach who casts a skeptical eye at the unorthodox way Carlin is being trained.
What is Jay after? There’s the suggestion that he wants redemption for his own unrealized dreams, but Peet leaves his motivation largely blank.
Questions naturally pile up about money and sex. Why is Jay offering to cover costs out of his own pocket? And where does his desire lie? Tippett, who played the high school football coach on the recently cancelled NBC series “Rise,” fleshes Jay out as well as any actor could. But rather than enriching the play’s mystery, the character’s vagueness begins to seem like a playwriting flaw.
Cyn is slippery in her own right. She jokes that she’d love to have a boyfriend but is already “in a committed relationship with alcohol,” a recycled punch line that is also partial truth.
Gummer (a rising talent who starred in the film “Ricki and the Flash” with her mirror image mother, Meryl Streep) paints a portrait of a slightly sloppy former drill team hottie fighting to hold on economically while giving her exceptional daughter a chance to develop into a champion. Her Cyn is determined not to become one of the bad tennis parents who plant a ticking time-bomb of rage and resentment inside their gifted offspring, but chasing the brass ring in tournament after tournament can do strange things to an overworked mom.
The sets by Tim Mackabee never let us lose sight of just how financially arduous this journey is for a mother juggling a customer service telephone job with tournament road trips that other families seem to have no trouble affording. Cyn’s apartment is claustrophobically generic, and public courts and budget hotels with three to a room are the unglamorous reality.
Peet’s impulse to resist overheating the drama is laudable, but the writing seems sluggish at times. The characters and the plot keep circling in place. When the action finally builds to a climax, Cyn’s behavior grows so strained that it has to be explained away by a lack of sleep.
Heffernan’s Carlin, however, is granted an opportunity to come into her own. As confused by the adults around her as we are, she temporarily banishes her mother before confronting her mentor with feelings that are at once awkwardly adolescent and precociously mature.
Despite the play’s tentative plotting and murky psychology, Carlin’s volatile emotions ring painfully true. Groomed for victory, this wonder must learn that life is more formidable than any opponent she’ll ever face on the court.
Tennis doesn’t allow for such a result, but the most an uncommonly talented young woman can hope for is to play the fallible people who raised her to a tie.
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Where: Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 29
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours