EXTENDED Thru June 23rd The Knowledge (Steep Theatre): Unerring authenticity and can’t-blink intensity – and watch out for Mickey

EXTENDED Thru June 23rd The Knowledge (Steep Theatre): Unerring authenticity and can’t-blink intensity – and watch out for Mickey

Reviewed by Tom Lawler

Steep Theatre presents THE KNOWLEDGE.

A newbie teacher in a working class town outside of London is given the dog assignment of teaching a class of the underprivileged and underperforming – the kids no one else wants. When we see plucky, wide-eyed Zoe (Caroline Neff, on all cylinders) stumble in on Day 1, we’re sympathetic to her hopeless mission. Not only is her class a terror, but also the school administrators are even worse.

Written by John Donnelly, a young UK playwright with an Albee-like love of witty, lacerating dialogue, one of the themes of The Knowledge is surely the importance of boundaries. It’s about respecting these barriers and realizing that they exist not to limit us, but protect us. As Zoe tries to win the trust of her new class, she’s encouraged by her students to share something personal about herself. This turns out very badly, because she’s in a shark tank and now has just put blood in the water.

There is no scarier shark than Mickey, an immature yet ferociously intelligent bully who rules the class with brute intimidation and a devestating tongue. Played by Clancy McCartney, who has recently appeared in productions at Steppenwolf and Collaboraction, Mickey is a dream role for any young actor. McCartney doesn’t just hit a home run here though, he drives everyone else in, too, and it’s a performance you shouldn’t dare miss in a space as intimate as Steep’s. (Just don’t watch him when he’s talking –  watch how he quietly seethes when he’s not the center of attention. Then look how he sizes up the weaknesses of his fellow classmates before he reloads and surgically goes back on the attack. You can’t not be fascinated as you see his eyes flicker and the gears turn!)

Everything about McCartney rings absolutely true here – the Irish accent, his Eminem-like buzz cut, even the damn stud earring – his performance is a force multiplier that injects a can’t-blink intensity to the proceedings that lifts the entire ensemble (which is top-to-bottom terrific) and conveys an unerring authenticity in the early scenes as we realize we’re not going to see the same Dangerous Minds/To Sir With Love hokum we may have been expecting based on the setting.

Instead, we’re in Mike Leigh territory with real characters full of contradictions and complications. Zoe is a young teacher with a good heart, yet is completely adrift and making bad choices like humans do. When Zoe is not being eaten alive by her students (a scene in which Mickey quickly assesses and then bluntly dismisses Zoe’s literary career will haunt anyone with creative ambitions beyond the workday), her administrators provide no help.

Jim Poole and Michael Salinas play a Bad Cop/Worse Cop combo who bring some needed levity in some tremendously funny scenes. Poole’s shaggy charisma is fully on display here as an administrator who uses a lot of banal words to sanitize some fairly shocking judgments, while Michael Salinas is willfully cryptic as a fellow teacher with a taste for underage girls on the weekends – and the occasional gym class. He sees Zoe’s obvious weakness and loneliness and zeroes in with his smoldering good looks and ice-cold anti-charm.

As Zoe, Neff is working at the peak of her powers as a character who makes some unsympathetic choices, yet never seems unlikable. This may be because Neff has an undeniable gift for working at the very edges of her vulnerability and showing us what’s in her heart. While not as showy as McCartney’s turn, Neff ably anchors this production and is supported with indelible performances from Carolyn Braver as Karris, a ditzy flirt with hidden reserves, and Jerry Mackinnon Jr., as Daniel, who expertly paces a tricky, layered part.

I’ve skirted around the story a bit, and there’s an involving one about what happens when a character crosses some important boundaries that needn’t be revealed here. If any tickets are still available for this production, you should buy them. For a theater company with such an esteemed history of scorching, exquisitely-acted productions and sold-out runs, this one belongs at the top of the list.

Running Time: Two hours with one 10-minute intermission.

At Steep Theater, 1115 W. Berwyn

Written by John Donnelly

Directed by Jonathan Berry

Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm; 4pm Sunday matinee performances on April 28 and May 5

Thru May 25

Buy tickets at steeptheatre.com or call (866) 811-4111


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