“Luce,” at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, is anything but. In fact, JC Lee’s drama is about as tight as they come, as its cast relentlessly pursues the truth about its title character. But the play is unflinching in its refusal to reveal Luce’s (Okieriete Onaodowan) real nature. Compactly written and tautly directed, its 90 minutes fly by with mesmerizing intensity.
Adopted by white parents in the U.S. after his birth parents died in Africa, Luce is both a star athlete and a stellar student, a perfect role model according to his teacher, Ms. Carter (Sharon Washington). Then he writes an incendiary essay, which leads Carter to search his locker, where she finds high voltage fireworks. She asks his mother, Amy (Marin Hinkle), to talk to him.
Luce says the fireworks belong to a friend. Amy and her husband Peter (the only underwritten role, played by Neal Huff) want to believe him, but it’s not easy. Amy talks to his former girlfriend (Olivia Oguma) and gets more ambiguous, disturbing information.
The beauty of “Luce” is its mystery. Who is Luce, anyway? The audience is in the same place as his parents; we don’t know if he’s a smooth serial liar or a regular teenager misinterpreted by an uptight teacher.
Lee builds the tension organically, as the various characters confront each other and come away with no clearer understanding of Luce’s essence. The cast is thrillingly focused; portrayals are bulls-eye specific. Onaodowan is perfect as the nonchalant overachiever who’s casually charming, perhaps too casually charming. The facts — to the extent there are facts — seem to conspire against him, but there’s always a lingering doubt.
If you go
Through Nov. 17
Claire Tow Theater
150 W. 65th St.