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Girls in Trouble

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Betsy Lippitt and Andy Gershenzon.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The most shocking thing about Girls in Trouble is that it's shocking at all. There's little about either Jonathan Reynolds's play or its methods, or Jim Simpson's lively but slightly uneven world-premiere production of it at the Flea Theater, controversial enough to frighten anyone with an open mind. Perhaps it's just that, when it comes to this play's particular topic - abortion - no one's mind is truly open?

That's not a good explanation for why the play is making its New York bow at a tiny Off-Off-Broadway venue in TriBeCa, rather than at any of the large-scale institutional companies (with very famous names) to which Reynolds reportedly shopped it first. But none other immediately suffices. All the show does is examine how three women deal with unwanted pregnancies during three different time periods (the early 1960s, the early 1980s, and the present day), reflecting on the legal and moral barriers that inform their choices.

Which isn't to say Girls in Trouble is in any way tepid. Act I, which centers on a well-connected college-age John F. Kennedy acolyte (Andy Gershenzon) driving his one-night stand (Betsy Lippitt) across state lines to protect his future political career, probes the selfish mindset of one particular "couple" in the darker and dangerous days before Roe v. Wade. Taking center stage in Act II is Sunny (Eboni Booth), a spoken-word performance artist from the ghetto who defends her own decision as a way to deny her uncaring boyfriend the control over her he wants. In the third act, a liberal cooking show and NPR host named Amanda (Laurel Holland) faces off against a fervent pro-life advocate, Cynthia (Booth again), who desperately wants to change Amanda's long-made-up mind about taking care of the six-month-along pregnancy she just discovered.

So straightforward and traditional in focus are the first two scenes, in fact, that they seem to defy the fuss surrounding this play. But, yes, the third act does go into stranger, more unsettling territory - and it's a big part of what makes the evening so worthwhile.

Reynolds treats both Amanda's and Cynthia's viewpoints with the utmost respect, giving each woman equal time to both state her own views and attack the other's. Their exchange is lengthy and heated, yes, but disturbing only for the graphic descriptions of the abortion process that Cynthia deploys to try to convince Amanda to give birth. "Stomach-curdling" is one appropriate adjective; "sobering" could well be another.

Eboni Booth and Laurel Holland.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Act III does eventually tread into electrically weird territory, as both Amanda and Cynthia resort to increasingly drastic measures to get their points across, but it's all a justifiable part of a vivid exploration of a nuclear issue. In creating two diametrically opposed, iron-clad extremists, Reynolds lets us see how steadfast ideologues are seldom that different from each other - even when they don't share a single opinion.

There's nothing here that's remotely threatening, and because of its careful balance, the play as a whole comes across as far less incendiary and partisan than the likes of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, David Hare's Stuff Happens, Tim Robbins's Embedded, or almost any play by Tony Kushner. It gives rational voice to both sides of the abortion issue, and that's something that should celebrated rather than squelched, and encouraged for any New York theater that defaults to airing the left-leaning argument on any issue. Reynolds proves, with apparently little effort, how energizing and theatrical honest debate can be.

That said, Simpson's production is hurt a bit by conflict of its own. The show is well staged in the Flea's tiny downstairs space, with evocative sets (John McDermott) and lights (Zack Tinkelman) helping tell the story. But it tends to render caricatures of most of its outlying characters.

The creamy callousness Gershenzon displays and the one-note nerdiness that floods the friend who accompanies him (Brett Aresco) don't compare well to the quiet, stark pain that Lippitt exhibits or the compassion her abortion administrator (Akyiaa Wilson) exudes. And in Act III, Amanda's daughter (Lippitt again) and ex-husband (Marshall York) are presented as pastel cartoons rather than the guideposts along the road to Amanda's decision that Reynolds intended. This is all the less forgivable because both Amanda and Cynthia are chiseled from (and imbued by their actresses with) immediately recognizable human emotions that let even the play's most credibility-stretching macabre occurrences be utterly believable.

It's that uncompromising sense of reality that makes Girls in Trouble so thrilling and so necessary - you're unlikely to find a more absorbing and keenly stated confrontation between the pro-life and pro-choice camps than here. Just don't come expecting not to have your own opinions - whatever they may be - shaken up like a martini. Reynolds's play achieves something that even the most political works rarely do on New York stages: It challenges you on the deepest and most personal of levels. Exercising your own right to choice and exposing yourself to this depressingly daring and sadly rare look at one of America's defining dilemmas may be one of the most important theatregoing acts you can commit in 2010.

Girls in Trouble
Through March 15
Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street
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