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The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 10, 2017

Susannah Perkins and Doug Harris
Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez

It is awfully difficult to pull off a satire about sexual assault without underplaying or overplaying your hand. The gold standard is probably Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 play How I Learned To Drive, which embedded the story of a pedophile and his victim within a veil of audience-beguiling dark humor. Now we have playwright Michael Yates Crowley's entry into this narrow field, a new work about teenage peer-rape opening tonight at The Duke on 42nd Street, titled The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias. In it, Crowley employs, with mixed success, the conventions of satire to take on the issue of "rape culture" at an American high school where football is king and football heroes are revered.

Relying rather heavily on familiar stereotypes and easy targets for its cartoonish humor, the play meanders along too many tangents to be completely effective. However, the production itself is well served by the rapid-fire direction by Tyne Rafaeli and in the performances by the excellent ensemble. In particular, Susannah Perkins is a standout in the central role of Grace, the misfit 15-year-old who is smitten with her assailant, Jeff (Doug Harris), one of the stars of the football team. Jeff is the only boy who has shown an interest in Grace, even as his teammate Bobby (Alex Breaux) verbally abuses her for inserting herself between him and his buddy.

The facts of the rape, or as the guidance counselor (Eva Kaminsky) refers to it, the "R-A-P-E," spelling it out the way a parent might in a conversation in front of a child, are revealed through the play's courtroom sequences. Grace's bumbling attorney (Jeff Biehl) tries to set forth a cut-and-dried case of forcible assault, wanting Grace to testify "how you're horribly, irreversibly damaged and will never recover." But Grace's dreamy interpretation of events and the message that it's not rape unless it is accompanied by serious bodily injury work against her, and Jeff is cleared of the charges.

The play's title refers to a paper that Grace has been working on, based on her understanding of a painting by Jacques-Louis David depicting the mythic war between the Sabines and the Romans (the latter also being the name of the school's football team). Grace at first buys into the interpretation of the myth that the "rape" of the Sabine women refers not to a sexual assault, but to their abduction by the Romans, who later married them. Grace imagines that after the trial, she will be able to date Jeff as if nothing had happened. Only later does she figure out that we only know the men's side of the story; the voices of the Sabine women have been completely quelled. By the end of the play, Grace has determined that she herself needs to be the voice of all of those silenced women.

Unfortunately, too much effort is aimed at packing in as many satiric jabs as possible, including jokey references to Wikipedia, Grace's fanciful efforts to contact her absent father by e-mail, appearances by Romulus and Remus, a side plot involving Grace's interest in a career as a firefighter, the vaguely homoerotic world of men-only activities, and the general ineptitude of all of the adults on the scene. These side trips interfere with the ability of the play to focus its sharpness on its significant message. Indeed, it is quite possible to miss the real turning point, when Grace's friend, the cheerleader Monica (Jeena Yi), reveals that Grace's rape is not a particularly unique experience among her classmates. This is the gasp-worthy moment the play needs, where we can see the conspiracy of silence that has kept everyone's head in the sand for a very long time. Overall, the play needs a great deal of trimming and reshaping to keep the message from being lost in the silly bits, so that we are prepared to take heart from the powerful final scene in which Grace insistently reads aloud her report and the play takes a firm and committed stand on behalf of women's empowerment.

The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias
Through September 23
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street
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