Monday, March 01, 2010

On-Stage: Girls in Trouble

As a former food columnist for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, cooking not surprisingly plays a role in Jonathan Reynolds’s latest play. However, as a playwright known to be at odds with Manhattan’s prevailing political orthodoxy (Timeout labels him conservative, while Reynolds professes to be more of libertarian), some greeted the announcement that his next play would tackle the issue of abortion with a bit of trepidation. It turns out, that anxiety was either completely justified or utterly unwarranted, depending on your interpretation (and sense of humor). One thing is certain, Girls in Trouble is sure to be the subject of heated post-show debate, now that it has officially opened at the Flea Theater in Tribeca.

Trouble does not merely address abortion, it is all about the controversial practice. As the first act opens, it is the bad old days of “back-alley” abortions. Hutch, the privileged son of a Kennedy administration official, speeds towards Cleveland with his loyal friend riding shotgun and the pregnant Barb sleeping fitfully in the backseat. He and Barb do not have much history beyond one fateful night, which is why the Undersecretary’s son is so anxious to get “it” taken care of as quickly as possible. However, they are late for their appointment with Sandra, a former military nurse, who now makes a practice of discretely fixing such problems. As a result, there is a mounting sense of foreboding for the abortion Barb has clearly been cajoled into having.

The second act is brief, but it might be the most uncomfortable for doctrinaire abortion activists. In a hip hop influenced monologue, a young woman spells out her less than edifying motivations for aborting her baby-fetus. While her abortion will indeed be a form of birth control, it will more importantly be a means to emotionally wound the father of her whatever-we-should-call-him-her-it.

The real battle royale of Trouble comes after the intermission, when a tenacious pro-life activist confronts an NPR host in her apartment, trying to convince the Upper Westside leftie to keep her baby. Amanda Stark is the Virtuous Vegan, who mixes leftwing politics with meatless cuisine for her public radio audience. Much to her surprise she had a little accident. Not exactly mother of the year to her daughter Kit, she hardly wants to try again from scratch, so she immediately schedules an abortion. Getting wind of her “choice,” Cynthia Rense cons her way into her apartment to convince Stark to choose life.

There are more laugh-out-loud digs at NPR in the Trouble’s third act than I ever thought I would hear on a stage in New York. There is also comedic full frontal nudity that makes Hair look rather staid. While Stark is hilariously skewered for her patronizing arrogance, the confrontation careens towards a moment of total stage madness that either deconstructs everything that had come before or caps off what could be the perfect nightmare of well-heeled Manhattan pro-choice liberals. Of course, one rather doubts there will be many left in the audience by this point, considering how challenging they would likely find the previous scenes.

Reynolds has written a very funny play that is decidedly pointed, but not at all knee-jerk. Like many libertarians, one senses he wishes a pox on both houses of the polarized abortion debate. It is also worth noting that his male characters are all rather weak and self-serving in comparison to their far stronger female counterparts. Yet, one would expect Pavlovian theater critics to savage Trouble for not faithfully hewing to the party line, despite the frequent wit of Reynolds’s text and Jim Simpson’s sure-footed direction.

The Bats, the Flea’s resident acting company, dig into Reynolds’s sharp dialogue with obvious relish, savoring its tartness. For the especially crucial third act, Laurel Holland and Eboni Booth truly rise to the occasion. As Stark, Holland might be the funniest media narcissist seen on-stage since Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed. Booth gives a truly fearless performance in several ways, consenting to a nude scene as a zealous pro-lifer (in Lower Manhattan no less), yet investing her character with a humanity that makes everything believable (at least until the final shoe drops). She also delivers the fiery second act monologue with absolute conviction.

Every week, plays opening in New York are hailed as brave and daring, when they are clearly not. Trouble really is. It challenges everyone’s preconceptions on abortion and could ultimately be interpreted as an argument for either side. However, ambiguity and nuance on contentious subjects are in rather short supply on the New York theater scene. That is why it is highly recommended free-thinking patrons check out the provocative Trouble and judge for themselves while they can. If you do not see it now, you will miss out on a legitimately challenging work, several unforgettable performances, and passionate debates that could linger for years to come. Now officially open, it runs at the Flea through March 15th.

(Photo: Carol Rosegg)