Savvy theatergoers know Next Theatre in Evanston offers provocative and artistically adventurous work without fail. Next, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last season, is a company that, along with Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge and a host of small, storefront troupes, put Chicago Theater on the national map in the 1980s.
Though housed in modest quarters at the Noyes Cultural Center, Next has always had outsize ambitions, choosing works by gifted playwrights and mounting top-flight productions. Its latest, “The Girl in the Yellow Dress,” is a smart, erotically-charged drama in which language fuels intense interactions between an English tutor and her French-Congolese student.
Celia is an Englishwoman in her 20s, living in Paris and offering English lessons, we assume, to help cover expenses. When we learn her family is quite wealthy, her motives become more mysterious. Pierre is a handsome black man who says he wants to master English because it “is the language of the world,” a place that seems foreign and closed to him.
So far, all seems quite innocent and reasonable. But, as the one-act drama unfolds, this initial facade falls away and the audience is plunged into the realm of psychodrama. By the second scene, Pierre begins his seduction of Celia who, at first, uses the rules of English grammar for self-protection and to keep him at bay.
She keeps quizzing Pierre on English’s convoluted verb constructions like the conditional and subjunctive tenses. The lessons, however, are a mere pretext for verbal foreplay. As they trade life stories, Celia and Pierre strive to make a human connection but differences of race, class and gender intrude.
South African playwright, Craig Higginson, has written an intelligent and lively drama full of revealing twists and turns. “Girl” was a praised and much-talked-about entry at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival.
The two-person cast delivers convincing performances. While Austin Talley moves capably from hesitant student to silky seducer, it is Carrie Coon who captures Celia’s complex personality most convincingly. Director Joanie Schultz ably finds the wit amid the tension in Higginson’s script and keeps the action taut and gripping.
A special tip of the hat goes to scenic designers Jacqueline and Richard Penrod whose Paris flat looks like a million bucks and is the perfect bachelorette pad. Next’s second play of the season is a winner. If sharp dialogue and intriguing characters are your preferred theater fare, rest assured that “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” delivers.
The play runs through February 26th. Tickets can be ordered at www.nexttheatre.org or by calling the theater office at 847/475-1875, ext. 2.