Our Very Own Carlin McCullough is about a mother and a daughter and the tennis coach who comes into their lives and transforms them. Amanda Peet’s second playwriting effort, directed by Tyne Rafaeli at the Geffen Playhouse on Tim Mackabee’s aptly modest set, features Mamie Gummer as Cyn, a struggling single mom who learns to her surprise that her 10-year old-daughter, Carlin (Abigail Dylan Harrison), may have a future as a tennis pro. The play tracks Cyn’s transformation from indifference to her daughter’s talents to hearty enthusiasm to an unraveling obsession; along the way it depicts the ups and downs and ins and outs of her relationship with her child and with the tennis coach committed to her daughter’s future. Under Rafaeli’s direction, Gummer gives a capable performance, but it is Joe Tippett as Jay, the dedicated coach whose sage advice goes unheeded, whose intense and fervent presence lends the production its emotional heft.
How Jay comes to be coaching Carlin we are never told. Suffice it to say we can tell from the start that it’s a labor of love (for the sport) and respect for the girl’s talent that keeps him at it. Though broke himself, he turns away Cyn’s efforts to pay for his services, knowing she barely makes ends meet. Things get a little uncomfortable after the lonely Cyn makes a move to seduce Jay, who’s attracted but nonetheless wary of complications and of being diverted from his primary aim: to mold Carlin into a top athlete. As someone who once had potential to be competitive but petered out, he’s determined to not let this happen to Carlin.
The plot takes a significant turn after Salif (Tyee Tilghman), a second coach, spots Carlin in competition and suggests she would be better attending a prestigious academy for her training rather than continue with Jay, who has no professional credentials and earns his living as a bartender. By this time Cyn has rebuilt her life around her daughter’s career and begins seriously considering this man’s counsel — although it would risk her relationship with Jay and disrupt the vital bond between him and her daughter.
One edgy element in the mix (given the ongoing spotlight on child sexual abuse) is just how kosher Jay’s interest is in Carlin: He touches her when they train, a practice Salif suggests is an old and outdated approach. But it turns out that Jay has absolutely no predatory designs; he’s a good and, ultimately, vulnerable guy, and his upright efforts to support Carlin’s career regardless of whether or not he’s attached to it make him highly sympathetic and compelling.
The other performances, which include Caroline Heffernan as the 17-year-old Carlin, are fine without being especially nuanced or illuminating. From my perspective, the depth and detail of the mother-daughter relationship needs to be more developed in Act I so that the dramatic payoff in Act 2 carries the weight the playwright intended. Encumbered by chatty exposition, the first half of the drama lags, but there are enough intense and ironic moments in the second to make it worth the wait.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through July 29. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.org.