Defunkt’s dark dance of connection and rejection

"Slipping," an intimate drama by Daniel Talbott, is an overpowering vortex of yearning and grief -- with a shot of redemptive love.

Two men meet in a cafe. One is dressed in a stylish overcoat, the other is wearing a baggy sweatshirt. Much time has passed since they last saw each other and while their mutual adoration is clear, a cloud of awkwardness and regret looms over the encounter. Clearly, something happened to them—something that wrenched them apart.

Slipping, a moving and fearsome play by Daniel Talbott being produced at Defunkt Theatre, is the story of that something. It’s a brisk deep dive into the inner lives of two gay high schoolers that is sometimes painful to behold. The tale deals with death, self-mutilation and emotional abuse, and if you expect Talbott or director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard to address those topics coyly, prepare for a severe shock when the darkness of the theater is pierced by the gleam of spilled blood.

Yet while it can be tempting to recoil from Slipping, you shouldn’t. The play’s vigorously original writing, magnificently transportive imagery and fearlessly realistic performances combine to create an experience that is as unforgettable as it is overwhelming. The journey may shake you, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking—quite the contrary.

Clifton Holznagel and John Corr as young lovers in Defunkt Theatre’s production of “Slipping.” Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Slipping is set primarily in Iowa, where Eli (Clifton Holznagel) has moved with his mother Jan (Paige McKinney) following his father’s death. At school, Eli is fiercely withdrawn—he hides behind a figurative suit of armor made of headphones and cigarettes. Yet one classmate takes the trouble to bash his way through: Jake (John Corr), who initially presents himself as steadfastly heterosexual and is rapidly revealed to be anything but.

As Eli and Jake go from arguing in art class to hanging out at the local AMC Theatre to making love, we see the beginning of a romance that is remarkably immune to cliché. If you think that Jake, a macho baseball player, will be shy about coming out, think again — he barely shrugs when the school learns of his love for Eli. Similarly, the play is mercifully free of hate crimes, despite its red-state setting. Slipping is a love story that insists that gay men have the right to the same familiar struggles — father issues, commitment issues — as straight men.

But familiar doesn’t mean easy. Eli constantly reels Jake in, only to reject him. This isn’t an act of malice; Eli is haunted by traumatic experiences — including a relationship with a violent and closeted ex-boyfriend (Brave Sohacki) and an eating disorder — that he simply isn’t ready to share with his new paramour.

This saga of connection and rejection is beautifully realized through Jessica Moretti’s set design. The stage is filled with screens whose images transport us to myriad locations, from a hospital room overlooking a city to a beach caressed by rushing waves. Defunkt’s stage behind Common Grounds Coffeehouse may be small, but these images transform it into a seemingly limitless canvas that takes us on a visually exhilarating voyage.

Equally impressive are Holznagel and Corr, who communicate as much with their bodies as they do with their words. While Corr’s movements are confident and crisp, Holznagel is often hunched over—he frequently looks like a contorted insect. The juxtaposition between the movements of the two actors creates a poignant distinction between the characters. One boy is coming into his own, the other is withering away.

But it doesn’t have to be that simple. Slipping may be too honest to placate us with a cleanly happy ending, but it isn’t cynical either. The play may make you feel each of Eli’s physical and emotional wounds as if they were your own, but it also gives you the sight of his face beaming as bright as a street lamp when he looks at Jake.

That, at the end of the day, is what makes Slipping an event. It leaves you with no doubt that you are in the presence of genuine redemptive love.

Slipping is at Defunkt Theatre. Tickets and schedule information here: http://www.defunktheatre.com/fall-play/2018/10/12/slipping-35ze2-p8xtc

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