It's not until the final of its three acts that former Times
food columnist and Pulitzer finalist Jonathan Reynolds
' latest play, Girls in Trouble
(having its world premiere at the Flea Theater
through April 11), tips its hand and begins to lose momentum. And surprisingly, this heavy-handed ending weakens the outspoken libertarian
's anti-abortion argument, which he develops with engaging complexity and conflicting emotional cues through the first two sections. After excellent scenes set in the 60s and 80s, the closing present day Ethics 101-type revision of the arguments for and against abortion clumsily overstates the conflicts played out beforehand. Despite this condescending raising up of the play's subtext, and some intensely uncomfortable and disturbing moments, Girls in Trouble
is perversely enjoyable and funny, largely due to the Flea Theater's resident company The Bats' excellent performances of Reynolds' sharpest and funniest writing.
The play opens on two college students in the 60s, ambitious alpha male Hutch (Andy Gershenzon) and Milhouse-ian sidekick Teddy (Brett Aresco), driving across Ohio at night. As they go, hitting small animals every few minutes, they exchange a hilarious variety of archetypal collegiate banter about girls and politics delivered superbly in breakneck deadpan with perfectly measured pauses, sidelong glances and comic physical mimicry, over the course of which the former schools the latter on his sexual exploits. "Is second base bare tit or covered tit?" Teddy asks as if questioning a town elder. "Second base is covered tit," Hutch explains, "Bare tit is second base but with a big lead." Only after several minutes of this do we understand that the woman whom Hutch has knocked up, Barb (a terrific woozy, jittery Betsy Lippitt), is passed out in the backseat. The trio's drive is interspersed with snippets of the scene at their destination, where they're going to get an illegal abortion from a single mother (Akyiaa Wilson) whose seven-year-old daughter Cindy (Eboni Booth) will grow up over the play's three time periods.
The excellent Booth is especially incredible in the middle act set in the 80s, a ten-minute or more monologue in which the down-and-out twenty-something Cindy—now nicknamed Sunny—explains her plans to get an abortion out of spite for her ex, to whom the speech is addressed. Equal parts rap, slam poetry and spoken word performance, this is the play's strongest passage and the moment when Reynolds' political stance is most powerful, embedded in this deeply felt and painful scenario in which an abortion suddenly becomes an act of calculated vengeance and wanton destruction. Singing, crying, screaming, chuckling and rhyming, Booth brings out Sunny's affection, hurt, humiliation and excitement at the prospect of revenge.
In the overlong third act, Sunny has grown into Cynthia, a middle-aged woman who comes into pregnant Amanda's (Laurel Holland) Upper East Side apartment under the pretext of preparing her for the abortion she's scheduled to have the following day. Cynthia is in fact a radical anti-abortion activist who makes house calls and is determined to dissuade the righteous NPR cooking show host Amanda—cue the perfect yuppie kitchen set courtesy John McDermott and a barrage of NPR jokes more unfunny than the shows they're mocking. The two women's drawn out debate of familiar talking points is punctuated with some delightfully funny moments, as when Cynthia strips naked to prove that she's not armed, and when Amanda's estranged husband Robert (the hilariously overblown Marshall York) and defiant daughter (Lippitt, terrific again) periodically burst into the scene—York, striding onstage at an unexpected moment yelling "Did she tell you it was rape yet?", gets perhaps the biggest of the show's many laughs.
However, too many moments of direct-address to the audience with cumbersome lighting cues, and an unbelievable escalation of means and arguments throughout the third act make for a disappointing ending that also seems like a resounding failure if Reynolds was trying to convince us that Cindy-Sunny-Cynthia's cause was a righteous one. That said, trimmed down from its current two hours and ten minutes, Girls in Trouble
could sustain the energy and surprisingly affecting comedy of its first two acts into a more satisfying, less pandering and alienating conclusion. In the play's present form, the trouble that befalls Amanda seems of a decidedly less serious sort than that endured by the previous girls.
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)