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This Play is Suddenly a Mystery-Thriller Inside Rajiv Joseph's new play "The North Pool"

By ANDY BUCK

If there's one thing to know about a typical Rajiv Joseph script, it's that there's no such thing. The prolific writer, whose play The North Pool is now at the Vineyard Theatre, has written more than ten dramatic works in the nine years since he graduated from NYU's playwriting program. They range from the epic surrealism of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, to the intimate realism of Animals Out of Paper, which managed to create stirring theatrical magic from the art of origami. (He's also written for the hit Showtime series Nurse Jackie.)

Coming up this summer is a new musical based on Peter Pan at Dallas Theater Center; meanwhile, he's shopping a spec screenplay titled Draft Day, about the manager of an NFL team.

The North Pool is a taut, two-man drama set in the vice principal's office of a large public high school somewhere in America. What begins as a study in shifting power dynamics and identity politics suddenly lurches, in the middle of the evening, into a mystery-thriller, with the school building itself symbolizing the vast, hidden secrets of its inhabitants.

Joseph likens the play to the 1995 noir classic, The Usual Suspects. "That movie is about two men in a room," he says. "One man's trying to find something out about the other guy, but there are all these twists and turns that happen."

The North Pool, too, follows unexpected paths into the hearts and minds of its characters, a frustrated school administrator and a cocky Middle Eastern transfer student. "There's a dash of Twin Peaks in there, as well," says the playwright. And there are definite, though often indirect echoes of post-9/11 debates around interrogation and torture.

Despite their diversity, however, there is one vital element that ties at least a half dozen of Joseph's plays together: His frequent collaborator, director Giovanna Sardelli, who reunites with him at the Vineyard.

With a laugh, Sardelli recalls, "When he first called me about this play [in 2009], he said, 'Do you want to do this thing? I have a new play, but you can't read it yet because it's going to change completely.'"

Joseph had been working on the piece for a few years, but he kept setting it aside as he finished other scripts. He recalls, "It had gone from two characters to five to six to three and then, when I called Giovanna, I said, 'It's going back to two. So she said, 'Okay. I'll do your reading, and I won't read your play.'"

It was a decision based on four years and five plays together. "After that many years of collaborating, you have an incredible trust," Sardelli says. "There's a definite shorthand between us," Joseph agrees. "[In rehearsal], there's a telepathy in the room. She knows what my notes are going to be most of the time. And I have a sense of why she's doing certain things, which makes me very relaxed."

Around the time that they began working on The North Pool, the Vineyard chose Joseph for its second annual Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, and that helped move the play forward into workshops and full productions at Palo Alto's TheatreWorks and Barrington Stage Company. "I'm a tinkerer," Joseph says. "I kept changing it going from Palo Alto to Barrington, and I've been changing it during this run. But the changes get smaller and smaller. And after this opens they will be complete."

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Andy Buck is a theatre writer and dramaturg in New York City

Photo by Carol Rosegg