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Theatre in Review: How to Defend Yourself (New York Theatre Workshop)

Jayson Lee, Sarah Marie Rodriguez. Photo: Joan Marcus

How to Defend Yourself left me deeply grateful not to be twenty-one. Liliana Padilla's new play, which announces them as a talent to watch, looks at college students exploring the treacherous terrain of dating and sex in an era marked by questions of power imbalances between the sexes and fears of rape. They face a world informed by anxiety, embarrassment, and the threat of violence and I don't envy them one bit. A flurry of studies reported in the last year indicate that young people are having less sex; listening to Padilla's characters, you'll know why.

The action unfolds against the background of a self-defense class led by the rather steely and doctrinaire Brandi (Talia Ryder), whose every utterance sounds like it comes from a brochure about empowerment. For all her bravado, Brandi is haunted by the assault on her roommate, Susannah, that has left her in the hospital, seriously hurt by two fraternity brothers. Among her motivations, Brandi worries that she failed Susannah by not keeping tabs on her that fateful night; in the world of How to Defend Yourself, smart young women share their location information with friends before going on a date. You never know when a fun night out might turn unspeakably ugly.

Attending the classes are Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati), a striver bent on getting into a sorority, also still a virgin and not at all happy about it; Diana (Gabriela Ortega), who is fascinated with guns to a degree that alarms the others; Nikki (Amaya Braganza), her reticent manner masking some remarkably aggressive impulses; and Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez), the group's queen of bad attitude. Representing the men are Andy (Sebastian Delascasas), a genial overexplainer who notes that fear of assault "has been a women's issue for too long," adding, "I'm putting it in my man box," and Eggo (Jayson Lee), who, by his own admission, is utterly flummoxed by the prevailing norms of seduction and consent.

Constructed as a series of classes punctuated by more intimate conversations, the play shows off Padilla's knack for casually revealed conflicts as well as their sharp sense of humor. Mojdeh offers a glowing account -- at least at first -- of a dream date that, she ultimately admits, was an exercise in humiliation. Diana uncomfortably allows that a news account of Susannah's violation turned her on. Nikki tells a ghastly story about oral sex in a gas station -- blowjobs are as casual as handshakes in this crowd -- while insisting it was a trivial event. ("He gave me a free Heath bar on my way out," she adds.) Kara defiantly insists that she likes violent role play, deeply unnerving Brandi, who, drawing on her pop psychology vocabulary, murmurs, "This feels like it's coming from a trauma space." Andy, who has his own reasons for feeling guilty about Susannah, sadly notes that the point of the class is "you're learning to protect yourself from guys who look like me." Eggo has a riotous, F-bomb-filled rant about the challenge of figuring out what women really want from him. Then again, everyone is busy calculating the odds; as Diana, explaining her mixed emotions about being propositioned, says, "I'm at a 40% yes but if he's at an 80 then I convert to 60 plus. Or I start at 30, get to a 50 and I'm like, yeah, that was fine." Got that?

As time passes, the conversation becomes more striking for what is not mentioned; somehow, pleasure or affection never come into it. Sex is seen as a social obligation or, perhaps, a source of status; everyone is out to score points, not just score, and the participants are often baffled about their own motivations. How to Defend Yourself is a comedy of manners set in a world where the rules either don't exist or are too murky to be fully understood. No wonder these kids look so poleaxed.

Padilla's focus is extremely narrow -- if the characters have any outside interests, we don't hear about them and, aside from an ill-timed girl-on-girl kiss, they are totally heterosexual -- and yet it feels blisteringly honest, a frank portrayal nevertheless informed by a certain tenderness. Especially remarkable is the playwright's ability to foreground the comedy of calamitous social interactions without ever losing sight of the crime that has stained everyone's lives. It's an exquisite balancing act and she rarely, if ever, puts a foot wrong.

Unusually, How to Defend Yourself has three directors -- Rachel Chavkin and Steph Paul in addition to Padilla -- but, aside from a time-traveling finale that I didn't fully understand until I read the script, its effect is unified, with choreographed sequences seamlessly worked into the action and many perfectly timed sequences featuring overlapping conversations. The cast -- all of them new faces -- is highly ingratiating. Rodriguez is especially striking as Kara, walking a fine line between transgression and self-destruction, as is Lee, a gifted dancer and complainer par excellence, and Ryder, who sheds her tough-coach facade to leave a heartbroken message on Susannah's phone.

The production is solidly designed, beginning with the detail-perfect gymnasium set by You-Shin Chen, aided by the lighting of Stacey Derosier, which blends an overhead fluorescent look with sunlight pouring in from the stage left window. Izumi Inaba's exercise-wear designs are carefully crafted to each character. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design blends hip-hop with a bit of Swan Lake.

Most surprisingly, a play loaded with profanity and undergirded by violence nevertheless retains a certain delicacy. Padilla is gifted with a rare perception; accurately sees these bright, mixed-up young people as stranded somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, and the playwright's feeling for them is evident in every line. Padilla feels protective of them and I'm betting you will, too; this is a notable debut. --David Barbour

(13 March 2023)

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