The Case Against Abortion: Girls In Trouble Review
In the last of the three acts of “Girls in Trouble,” Jonathan Reynolds’ new play at the Flea Theater about abortion, a man angrily chokes a woman twice – first because he thinks she’s the doctor who will be performing the abortion on his wife, and then a second time when he’s told that she is in fact a pro-life advocate trying to persuade his wife not to have the abortion. His first objection is personal, the second political.
To call “Girls in Trouble” provocative is to understate the degree to which the play is sure to antagonize anybody who feels strongly one way or another about the issue of abortion. This is where somebody would typically say: Well, the playwright must be doing something right if he offends both sides. But the two sides will be aghast for different reasons.
The double-choking scene is atypical of “Girls in Trouble” in that it is poorly acted. But it also offers a clear clue to what seems to be Reynolds’ bottom-line intent — to persuade his audience that people with a pro-choice position hold views that are largely unexamined and often indefensible.
At the same time, though, the character who articulates the pro-life position, speaking reasonably when making her cogent arguments, takes actions — baffling, scary, bloody — that are indistinguishable from those of a psychotic.
Abortion In Kennedy Era, Reagan Era, Current Era
“Girls In Trouble” is divided into three acts and three eras.
There is no denying Reynolds’ skill as a dramatist in the first act, haunting and well-performed. We are introduced to two college friends; one, Hutch (the excellent Andy Gershenzon), is, we eventually learn, the son of an official in the Kennedy Administration, and a smooth-talking “ass-man,” somebody intent on sexual conquest. The other is his naive wannabee pal (Brett Aresco). They are talking girls and sex while driving at night, which would seem like idle albeit unsavory conversation except that there is a girl drunk and prostrate in the back seat (Betsy Lippitt.) They are going to an abortionist in Cleveland. It is the early 1960’s, and abortion is illegal. The abortionist is an African-American woman (Akyiaa Wilson) first seen talking to her seven-year-old daughter, Cindy (Eboni Booth).
Booth changes costume before our eyes to become the woman of the second act, now named Sunny, who delivers a monologue told half in a kind of hip-hop verse that, to be polite, I’ll say Reynolds was brave to have essayed. Sunny is thinking of having an abortion to spite her boyfriend because he doesn’t love her enough. It is the 1980’s.
The first two acts are, as it turns out, prologues to the main event. It is the present day, we are on the Upper West Side, and Booth returns, now named Cynthia, pretending to be a gynecologist in order to get invited to the home of Amanda (Laurel Holland), a pregnant woman who has made an appointment to have an abortion the following day. But this is a ruse. Cynthia is actually a pro-life activist, determined to stop Amanda.
Their encounter, which takes up nearly half the play, sets them up as ideological opposites….
Cynthia: Well, you know what they say: a conservative is a liberal who’s been
Amanda: Yes, and a liberal is a conservative who’s had an orgasm.
It includes arguments and counterarguments both familiar and unfamiliar, e.g.:
Amanda: In this country we don’t treat a fetus like a human being.
Cynthia: I do.
Amanda: Well, you shouldn’t. We don’t have funerals for miscarriages, we don’t
charge women who drink or smoke dope or ski while pregnant with reckless endangerment.
Cynthia: Amanda Junior’s brain waves could be measured after only forty days–
And if someone is legally dead when there are no brainwaves, makes sense they’re legally alive when there are brain waves, right?
Amanda: Where do you get all these unprovable factoids?
The back-and-forth is interesting, the makings of a thought-provoking if controversial drama, helped along by the stand-out performances of the two antagonists. But Reynolds was not content to create a stimulating confrontation between two credible characters. He has made Amanda into an affluent celebrity, the host of a cooking show on NPR and PBS called “The Virtuous Vegan,” which gives him the chance to show up the supposed hypocrisy of a pro-choice vegetarian. He has saddled her with a shrill, estranged husband. He has her admit she hates kids and agree that abortion is murder but then say “I don’t give a shit.” In some ways, he takes even more liberties with Cynthia. He has her completely disrobe, standing on stage naked before Amanda and the audience, supposedly to prove that she is unarmed and thus poses no threat to Amanda. (Would a stranger who visited you in your home under false pretenses reassure you by taking off their clothes?)
Her nudity is just one shock, and not even the most over-the-top, from the playwright’s theatrical bag of tricks. There is a scene of roadside sex, the strangulation of a kitten, screaming matches, a bloody birth. While these keep our attention on the stage, they also add to our confusion; what exactly is “Girls in Trouble” trying to say?
Reynolds, probably best-known as a former food columnist for the New York Times Magazine, has seen nine of his previous plays produced in New York, including “Geniuses,” a satire on the making of the movie “Apocalypse Now”, “Dinner with Demons” his one-man show in which he cooked a five-course meal onstage while playing a convivial raconteur, and “Stonewall Jackson’s House,” whose premise seems most relevant here: A white male playwright writes a play about a black woman who wants to become a slave. This gives conniptions to the small theater company that is offered the play to produce, and gave Reynolds a chance to score points against liberal orthodoxies.
The Flea, the small theater company given “Girls in Trouble” to produce after years of rejections elsewhere, seems delighted at the chance to provoke: The program announces “an infuriating new play.”
The program also gives the characters that Eboni Booth plays three different names, as if they are different people, rather than the same character at different ages. Yet the Cynthia of the third act gives details of her life story that are the same as Sunny of the second act and Cindy of the first, i.e. she says she was the daughter of an abortionist in Cleveland. I wouldn’t mention this except that in its small way it seems indicative of what is most infuriating about “Girls in Trouble”– not the deliberate political incitement, not the manipulation of the characters, but the muddle.
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Girls in Trouble by Jonathan Reynolds
At The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, Manhattan
Directed by Jim Simpson
Set by John McDermott, lighting by Zack Tinkelman, costume by Amanda Bujak, sound by Jeremy Wilson
Andy Gershenzon as Hutch
Brett Aresco asTeddy
Betsy Lippitt as Barb/Kit
Akyiaa Wilson as Sandra
Eboni Booth as Cindy/Sunny/Cynthia
Laurel Holland as Amanda
Marshall York as Robert
Running time: two hours plus intermission
Ticket price: $25
Through March 15
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