There is puppy love, and there is also pit-bull love. The young hero of Slipping at New Conservatory Theatre Center has trouble accepting the former after having first experienced the latter. Daniel Talbott’s play goes down many familiar roads in a story of romantic gay discovery, but it also has a few detours that help distinguish it from similarly themed plays.
Numerous short scenes in the 75-minute play alternate between a university town in Iowa and flashbacks to San Francisco, with the locales providing the opposite lessons of what might be expected for a gay teen struggling with self-esteem issues. Iowa, it turns out, is more like Oz, with San Francisco stuck in the Kansas role. And yet the SF scenes have an edgier truth than the fantasy-fulfillment resolutions that Iowa offers.
The hero of Slipping is a young misfit named Eli who dares anyone to like him. After his father is killed in a car crash, his mother drags him to Iowa, where she has landed a prestigious academic position. For reasons not plausibly developed, the heretofore straight-identified BMOC at Eli’s new school not only befriends this surly outsider with a punk haircut, but after sharing a few pottery classes together, Jake cheerfully decides he and Eli should openly be lovers.
What helps save this scenario from dreamy banality are the San Francisco flashbacks that reveal why Eli is alternately receptive and hostile to Jake’s affectionate advances. Eli’s earlier sexual experiences were with a thuggish schoolmate spouting homophobic invectives even as he allowed moments of physicality and hints of affection with the aroused, smitten, and confused Eli. They also leave Eli emotionally damaged, and physically damaging to himself.
These moments have an unpredictable dangerousness, in contrast to the dramatically thin and pause-laden dialogue of much of the rest of the play under Andrew Nance’s direction. And while projected titles tell us the date and locale of intercut plotlines, Ron Gasparinetti’s abstract unit set doesn’t provide visual contrasts that might help integrate the cause and effect of Eli’s experiences.
Evan Johnson plays Eli with a prickly intensity that finds its opposite in Benjamin T. Ismail’s loping geniality as Jake, Stacy Thunes projects aching warmth as Eli’s mother, and Fernando Navales provides the play with its most heft by creating a bully of unexpectedly seductive layers. It gets better, as the slogan says, but not necessarily in theatrical terms.
Slipping will run through July 1 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Tickets are $25-$45. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.