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The Next Theatre’s United States premiere production of “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” is a synergistic expression of playwright Craig Higginson’s devilishly well-written work.
In essence, the play, set in Paris, is a modern-day Tower of Babel, where the diversity of languages and all the barriers they imply – cultural, racial, social – often make human interaction a blathering mess. However, the most astonishing revelation comes not from the biological or socio-economic differences we tiptoe along on a daily basis (explored here with an unflinching honesty), but the devastating constructs they create within themselves – self- deception, dishonesty – that become the greatest barrier to interactions and happiness.
A two-actor play requires great actors, and the Next has them with Carrie Coon (“The Real Thing” at Writers’ Theatre) and Austin Talley (“As You Like It” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), both immensely talented actors at the top of their game.
As Celia, an upper-class, Paris-dwelling Briton, Ms. Coon is reserved and intellectual one minute, spiteful and psychologically damaged the next. Mr. Talley’s Pierre, an African living in an increasingly prejudiced France, is an idealist and romantic prone to deception.
The way in which both actors manage to fully inhabit their roles reveals their characters as disturbingly human despite the glaring flaws of their characters, and allows the audience to root for them to form a relationship, however dysfunctional.
The story is deceptively simple. Celia, an English-language tutor, agrees to take on Pierre as a new student in the confines of her ritzy Paris apartment, between the walls of which the entire play unfolds.
The two slowly reveal themselves to one another during a prolonged “mating dance,” as artistic director Jenny Avery describes their interaction. Each lesson brings them closer to forming a connection, and even as their lessons become more intimate, Celia incessantly corrects Pierre’s verb tenses.
Despite their mutual attraction, their own perceptions of class, race and gender serve to destroy them. Pierre thinks Celia’s asking whether or not he can afford the lessons is a form of subtle racism, while she takes offense to his conviction that those who are white and speak English find happiness is in the palm of their hands.
Director Joanie Schultz (who directed the powerful and intense “The Metal Children” at Next) masters the tango during this mating dance, as the actors’ movements are pitch-perfect throughout; sitting properly while the teacher-student roles play out, upright and kinetic when emotions rise and truths emerge. In “The Girl in the Yellow Dress,” however, the truth can be an absent thing.
Toward the end, the torrent of their emotions and scars leaves the two leveling psychological blows upon one another, and the moment plays out like a heavyweight fight of the Ali-Frazier type.
“The Girl in the Yellow Dress” runs 90 minutes with no intermission through Feb. 26 at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes St.