’Vanya’ In Your Face; Jell-O Shot Tragedy: Jeremy Gerard

Zeljko Ivanek and Sarah Steele in "Slowgirl." The new play by Greg Pierce inaugurates the company's new Claire Tow Theater atop the Vivian Beaumont. Photographer: Erin Baiano/Philip Rinaldi Publicity via Bloomberg

If you want to see why directors around the world want to work with young American talent, spend $20 and a couple of hours with Sarah Steele in “Slowgirl.”

Steele plays 17-year-old Becky, who has arrived from California at her uncle’s isolated jungle house in Costa Rica when the play opens. Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek) hasn’t seen his sister’s daughter for nearly a decade, but a crisis has brought the girl for a weeklong visit.

Once Becky overcomes her squeamishness about the sounds of birdcalls and iguanas scrabbling on the roof at night, she eases into a growing bond with Sterling.

Piece by piece she reveals the story of a party to which her friends invited the girl whose nickname gives the play its title. Group cruelty turned to tragedy when Slowgirl, drunk on Jell-O shots, tried to fly from the second story of the house where the party had gotten out of control. Becky’s mother has sent her to Sterling for a week’s rest before she faces possible charges as Slowgirl lies in a coma in the hospital.

Playwright Greg Pierce has a fine command of precisely how Becky and Sterling would speak to each other. Becky’s funny casual vulgarisms reveal not just the jitterbug angst of a kid in serious trouble, but of a young woman unexpectedly forced to confront the moral consequences of her actions.

Body Language

Steele plays Becky with empathy and nuance. Watch her eyes and body language for subtle -- and, later, not-so-subtle -- access to the panic building just below the struggling girl’s surface.

Sterling will, of course, have his own issues to deal with. Ivanek, who has grown on New York stages into one of our finest actors, invests him with a voice cracking with emotion and eyes sunken with regret even as he claims to be happy in his odd environs.

Pierce parcels out the information a bit too formulaically but Anne Kauffman’s sensitive staging steers the action away from heavy-handedness. Rachel Hauck’s rough-hewn set is a marvel of simplicity and Japhy Weideman’s lighting and Leah Gelpe’s sounds bring the jungle to life.

This new one-act drama inaugurates the handsome 112-seat Claire Tow Theater, which sits atop the Vivian Beaumont on the Lincoln Center campus. It’s the permanent home of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program for developing new playwrights and audiences. “4,000 Miles,” one of last season’s best plays, began at LCT3 (it’s running downstairs, in the Mitzi E. Newhouse, through the end of the month).

Through July 15 at 150 W. 65th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***

‘Uncle Vanya’

Next month, New Yorkers will get to see Cate Blanchett’s feral Yelena when the Sydney Theatre Company’s knockout production of “Uncle Vanya” comes to the Lincoln Center Festival.

But an extraordinary and very different “Vanya” is running now at the tiny Soho Rep, where director Sam Gold’s living-room production is the most intimate and engaging exploration of Chekhov’s bleak comedy since Andre Gregory’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” more than 20 years ago.

Using a breezy adaptation by playwright Annie Baker (“Circle Mirror Transformation”), the production features Maria Dizzia as Yelena, the beautiful young wife of the pompous academic Serebryakov (Peter Friedman) with whom she has reluctantly returned to the family estate.

For 25 years, Reed Birney’s embittered Vanya has managed the farm, sending its profits to the professor to support his urbane lifestyle. Vanya is smitten with Yelena, which only increases his depression.

Also lovestruck is Astrov, the local doctor and proto-environmentalist, played by the extraordinary Michael Shannon as an impassioned drunk who bores Yelena only slightly less than the others. Vanya’s plain jane niece Sonya (Merritt Wever) loves Astrov, who isn’t interested.

Dizzia is not the trapped animal Blanchett plays. Yelena’s howl, “I’m so bored!” is here more a sulky whine than a threat that worlds are about to be turned inside-out.

Yet the small scale of this production brings out the comedy with which many Chekhov stagings are uncomfortable. Andrew Lieberman’s plywood A-frame set has the audience sitting on carpeted bleachers around the action unfolding inches away. They’re not very comfortable; bring a pillow.

Through July 22 at 46 Walker St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.sohorep.org. Rating: **1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine.

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