Friday, March 05, 2010

Girls in Trouble

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Hutch (Andy Gershenzon) and Teddy (Brett Aresco), two college cats from the '60s are speeding through the night. Hutch, a spoiled but connected rich kid, is regaling his nerdy friend with tales of his many conquests, and imparts the following advice about getting from first to second base: " if it were all part of one graceful, completely unexceptional movement so she won't be alarmed, onto her breast. Nothing at all dramatic. You kill it if it's all neon and 'Breast! Breast!'" And that's how Jonathan Reynold's Girls in Trouble starts, waiting a full fifteen minutes before springing Barb (Betsy Lippitt) and her impending abortion from the backseat. Arrogant before, Hutch is now fully callous and on his way to outright villainy, especially as he convinces her to go through with it by all but raping her. He's trouble, all right, and though we sympathize, her inevitable complication is a little too pat--as is the majority of Girls in Trouble. What often starts out graceful almost always turns to "Abortion! Abortion!," for Reynolds is less interested in exploring character than in exploiting circumstances.

To Reynold's credit, he gives both sides a fair run for their money, despite coming from a conservative standpoint. In his world, it's not that abortion is flat-out wrong, so much as it is that the women in this play are getting abortions for what some might call the wrong reasons. (No matter how pro-choice you are, it's hard to say that it's the right choice if you agree that it's murder but don't care.) And these moments, which are rarely seen on stage, are the more surprising and interesting ones. The second act jumps to the 80s, and revolves around a spoken-word monologue from Sunny (Eboni Booth): "I just a po' little ghetto girl nigger born and bred," is how she describes herself, though she transforms as she speaks of her lover, Danny: "Well, lots say that, 'You special,' and I know they after these bubbles, but you, Danny, you say, 'Sunny, you special to me.'" We think we know where things are going when the upward aspiring Danny abandons her (her street-talk embarrasses him), but no. Instead, she brags of alimony ("You gonna pay for not lovin' me"). It's not until Danny re-enters her life, until she sees how much he loves their soon-to-be-child, that she decides to get an abortion: "I'm gonna take this thing you say you love most and show you where the power at now." Booth's performance is both carefully considered and emotionally fraught, and that's what makes the tale so affecting: you love and hate her all at once.

This is what makes the third act so frustrating. Though this modern section starts in the middle of the action, Amanda (Laurel Holland) and Cynthia (Booth) keep interrupting the action to explain it to us. In addition, it makes Reynolds a sloppy writer: because he's got a liberal vegan chef on one side and a conservative guerrilla anti-abortionist, he can say whatever he wants without having to justify it. They're spokespersons for rejoinders like these: "A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged." "Yes, and a liberal is a conservative who's had an orgasm." The frustrating part is that Cynthia is a unique character--serenely menacing, even when she strips completely, both to unnerve Amanda and to prove that she's unarmed. Though this Cynthia turns out to be the grown-up version of Sunny (she didn't have that abortion), who was in fact Cindy, the daughter of the abortionist visited by Hutch, Teddy, and Barb, we're missing the crucial (and convincing) bit of how she got from A to B to C. Furthermore, because their motives are clearly spoken to the audience, we're never shaken up, even when things are supposed to get uncomfortable at the end.

Free speech, according to Reynolds, is "the right of every American to scare the shit out of every other American," but he's so free--so loose--that we tune out, especially when one starts to quote Freakonomics and the other tries anthropomorphizing with a pair of ptarmigans. Then again, the show runs so smoothly--especially under Jim Simpson's direction--that it does occasionally catch you off-guard, which is the biggest complement one can give a hot-button show, one for which audiences are likely to already be pretty firmly entrenched. In other words, the more the third act turns into an episode of Jerry Springer ("I'm trying to save your daughter's life!" "I'm trying to save my life!"), the more a basic fact--there are millions of people dying to adopt--comes across as profound. Girls in Trouble may be exploitative, but it's at least interesting.

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