March 18, 2023

How To Defend Yourself" Grapples With Gen-Z Concerns About Intimacy and Consent

Thousands of dollars and countless hours have been spent trying to figure out how to get young people into the theater. But I’ve got a hunch that the answer is simple: offer things they want to see and hear. I suspect that How to Defend Yourself, the bittersweet comedy of modern-day manners that opened this week at New York Theatre Workshop, is just that kind of show.

The narrative centers around a self-defense class organized by a group of college students after a couple of fraternity brothers so brutally raped a female classmate that she’s ended up in the hospital. The sessions are led by Brandi, a taut—in every sense of that word—senior who is determined to share her knowledge of the fighting techniques that she’s mastered and believes can disarm sexual predators.

The women in her class like practicing the martial arts moves (energetically choreographed by Steph Paul, one of the show’s three credited directors) but they’re more ambivalent when it comes to handling their feelings about sex. 

An eager freshman is excited about the prospect of losing her virginity to a hot guy on campus no matter what it takes. Another student is willing to hook up with just about anyone in exchange for even the slightest display of affection. While a third admits she likes it when her sex partners are a little rough.    

Two guys also come to the sessions to demonstrate their ally support but they’re even more confused. “Girls want you to read their fucking minds and then be everything to them,” one, who is perhaps too intentionally named Eggo, laments. “If you’re flirting with me, if you come up to me at a bar and press your tits on me, I’m assuming you want to fuck, sorry!”  

Such quandries about intimacy and consent are high on the list of issues that young people today are wrestling with and Eggo’s comments echo the way they talk about them. Which isn’t surprising. Playwright Liliana Padilla, who is part Asian, part Latinx and identifies as nonbinary, is just a few years out of grad school and has said that they themself are a rape survivor (click here to read more about that). 

But this isn’t a soapbox drama attempting to teach life lessons. Padilla, a winner of the 2019 Yale Drama Prize for emerging playwrights, accepts that life is messy and, allowing form to follow function, permits this play to be messy too. 

So How to Defend Yourself poses the challenging questions and then dares its audiences to figure out for ourselves what today’s young women and men should do to protect themselves—or at least to develop some compassion for those struggling to do so.

This may be frustrating for viewers who want a play that stakes out a clear position on what's right and what's wrong. But even they are likely to be entertained by this play’s bantering humor, its game cast and the kinetic staging, jointly crafted by Padilla, Paul and the always inventive Rachel Chavkin.

I’ll confess that I have no idea what the final five minutes of the play were trying to say but it probably wasn’t speaking to baby boomer me anyway. On the other hand, I happened to be sitting in the midst of a bunch of twentysomethings and I could tell by their head nods and murmurs of assent that it was speaking their language. And that’s why they were there.

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