March 6, 2010

The Right and Wrong of “Girls in Trouble”

According to conventional wisdom, theater people tend to be liberal in their politics.  And if you were to canvass the folks working on, off- and off-off-Broadway on issues like health care, same-sex marriage, or the war in Iraq, you’d probably find there’s more than a little truth to that. Which is fine with me because that’s the way I lean too.  But we all now live in such an echo-chamber of like-minded opinions that I was intrigued by the idea of seeing Girls in Trouble, the new play by Jonathan Reynolds that promised to take a look at the abortion debate from a conservative perspective.

Reynolds seems to get a kick out of outing himself as an openly conservative playwright (click here to read interviews he gave to Playbill and Time Out New York.)  He enjoys poking fun at the left too.  His play Stonewall Jackson's House about a small theater company’s debate over whether to put on a play in which a black woman asks a white couple if she can be their slave drew attention back in 1997 for its less than p.c. attitude towards such topics as affirmative action, multiculturalism and non-traditional casting.

Girls in Trouble takes jabs at liberal icons and affectations too. A line in the play identifies NPR as the news network that likes to “look at just how awful the world is [and] why America made it that way.”  One of its characters is the host of a Martha Stewart-style cooking show called “The Virtuous Vegan.”  But the focus of the play is on a more serious matter.  Each of its three scenes, set in the ‘60s, the ‘80s and the present, pivots around the decision—and the resulting consequences—of a woman contemplating an abortion. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the consequences aren’t great for the women who decide to go through with it.

Race plays a role too. The one character appearing in all three scenes is a black woman who starts out as the young daughter of an abortionist and ends up as a determined pro-life crusader. The show is playing at The Flea Theater down in Tribeca and, as with many productions there, the cast is drawn from The Bats, the theater’s resident company of young actors who are selected each year to perform in a range  of productions.  A few of the seven-member cast are still shaky in their craft but the solid standout at its center is Eboni Booth, who gives an intensely honest (and very brave) performance, particularly in the soliloquy that makes up the second scene and in an extended nude scene in the third.

At first glance, the play seems an odd choice for The Flea, whose past productions have included A.R. Gurney’s anti-George W. Bush comedy Mrs. Farnsworth and shows by the performance artist Karen Finley, whose provocative pieces about gender issues put her near the top of the enemies list of the right during the culture wars of the ‘90s. But Jim Simpson,
the Flea’s founder and this production’s director, defended his choice during the brief talkback following the performance my friend Jessie and I attended.  Simpson admitted that his partner, the producer Carol Ostrow and his wife, the actress Sigourney Weaver, had reservations about Girls in Trouble but he said he decided to go ahead with the show because he thinks theater is “a good place to engage dangerous things.”

A woman sitting in the back row of the Flea’s tiny theater didn’t seem convinced.  She challenged Reynolds on a point in the play and then sat obviously fuming through the rest of the somewhat awkward Q&A. But I think Simpson is right. Reynolds’ dramaturgy goes off the rails at times and the last scene, which takes up the entire second act, is primarily a debating exercise but at least he’s dealing with the kind of important subject that I wish more American playwrights were taking on. And so regardless of how I feel about this particular show’s politics, I’m glad it got done.


Aaron Riccio said...

Right on. Not a terrific play, but one worth struggling with.

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jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Aaron, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, particularly this supportive one. We live in such politically polarized times that one feels almost a traitor for even acknowledging that there may be another way of looking at an issue and if Reynolds' play does nothing else, it at least offers that opportunity.

And bienvenido Juan Miguel!

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