JC Lee’s new play Luce (now playing at Lincoln Center’s rooftop LCT3 space through Nov. 17) picks up on themes of troubled, possibly criminal teenagers expressed in the recent Tilda Swinton film We Need to Talk About Kevin. Instead of showing its hand immediately, as Kevin did, Lee’s builds more mystery about the nature of Luce (Okierete Onaodowan), the seemingly popular, African-born adopted 17-year-old son of an all-American white couple (Marin Hinkle and Neal Huff). The family realizes that Luce may not be as well-adjusted as he seems when Harriet (Sharon Washington), a concerned teacher who has shepherded his academic growth, discovers fireworks in the boy’s locker and a notebook containing factoids about an Eastern European terrorist.
Luce apparently despises Harriet, who has fervently used him as an example for other students to follow, and he sneakily tries to get under her skin. But the questions begin to mount: Is he a sociopath in the making or did those fireworks actually belong to classmates with whom he shares a locker? And what about Stephanie (Olivia Oguma), the awkward, damaged girl he reportedly rescued from sexual shaming by school jocks? Is she a key to his newfound, erratic-seeming behavior?
Lee is perhaps too eager to make Luce’s family likable from the outset (mom even says ”totes” and chats about ”friend adds” on Facebook), which shifts some balance against the more abrasively drawn Harriet. And Luce could use more shading; he seems a little too agreeable at first, especially for a high school senior, despite a terrific performance by Onaodowan.
But as the play progresses, so does the narrative intrigue. Director May Adrales wisely avoids overheated melodrama, and the entire cast does solid work. Oguma in particular crafts the entire delicate world of teenage dread in one expertly played scene. Since Facebook is name-checked in at least two major scenes, it seems only fitting to conclude that Luce gets a ”Like.” B