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Theatre in Review: The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias

Susannah Perkins, Jeena Yi. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez

It's a brave thing for a male playwright -- even a gay one -- to take on rape and what has come to be known as rape culture, and in The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias, produced by The Playwrights Realm at The Duke on 42nd Street, Michael Yates Crowley succeeds about half the time. That his effort is so all over the place -- one minute acute and gripping, the next distressingly lame -- is, no doubt, a clear indication of just how difficult it can be to harness this material for dramatic purposes.

When the undeniably talented Crowley focuses on the tense dramatic situation at the play's core, he seems incapable of putting a foot wrong. Grace Matthias is a woebegone adolescent even before a rape charge makes her the center of controversy in her hometown. Her father is long gone and her mother apparently never exits her bedroom, leaving Grace to fend for herself in a high school environment where popularity is the coin of the realm and those who don't fit in are marked for social quarantine. In Ásta Bennie Hostetter's keenly observant costume design, Grace looks like something the cat dragged in, bundled up in bulky sweaters, her bedraggled hair a code red-level grooming emergency. A creature of fierce intelligence, she is also cripplingly unsure of herself, not to mention keenly aware of her plankton status on the social food chain. Imagine her surprise when she catches the eye of Jeff, one of the school's football heroes. Jeff is handsome, good-natured, and empty-headed -- the kind of cute dimwit who never stops to question his popularity -- and yet he can't quite get Grace out of his thoughts. This enrages Bobby, Jeff's teammate, a strutting, vicious example of the adolescent male at his worst. (Among other things, he addresses Grace as "piggy." He also excuses his abhorrent behavior with a false smile and the claim that he is "just messing" with his victim du jour.) Bobby is in love with Jeff, a secret he can't admit even to himself; trapped in this psychological bind, he blows off steam by acting out, destructively.

I won't describe how this explosive triangle results in Grace's violation, except to note that the circumstances are complicated and largely influenced by the twisted Bobby -- Jeff dynamic. When Grace reports the crime, she becomes a victim all over again: Some of the locals resent her for bringing down their local sports idols and others openly doubt her story. Even her lawyer treats her as a pawn in a long legal game, working hard -- and usually failing -- to repackage Grace as the kind of saintly, uncomplicated martyr the media will accept. Definitely not in her favor is her stated hope that she and Jeff can get back together; it's no small achievement that Crowley makes us understand why Grace continues to nurse this idea.

The scenes featuring Grace, Bobby, and Jeff are tautly written and filled with tension, but Crowley tries to play everything else for laughs, resulting in a series of lame comic sketches populated by shrill cartoons. There's the overwrought counselor who must spell out the word "rape" -- a device that is repeated endlessly, to grating effect -- and who bursts into tears, saying between sobs, "I can't stand it when students get emotional." Plot developments are telegraphed by an unctuous newscaster ("Good morning, Springfield! Another perfect day in a perfect town.") who should be a prime comic target but for his totally unrealistic presentation. He holds fawning interviews with Bobby, who all but outs himself talking about his teamwork with Jeff. ("The two of us, on the field, together see what our bodies can do, how they move and throw and sweat.") A news segment featuring "two male experts on rape" rouses one to anger, not because of their lack of empathy but because the entire scene is so lazy and obvious.

Even for a play that is basically a cocktail of satire and polemics, the action is studded with implausibilities. Grace's flirtation with Jeff begins when she hides out in the guys' locker room, for reasons that are never made clear. Grace is somehow best friends with Monica, a callous, superficial cheerleader who dreams of a career as a Real Housewife. (Someday, a playwright is going to give us a high school cheerleader who reads Proust, has a solid grasp of the Third Law of Thermodynamics, and is driven by a commitment to social justice. I long for that day.) The play's title alludes to Grace's obsession with the Sabine women, who married the Romans who raped them, a notion that allows her to think she still has a chance with Jeff. Aside from the extreme unlikelihood -- in these days of omnipresent trigger warnings -- of a high school art class featuring a close study of Jacques-Louis David's painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, the idea feels like a writer's conceit rather than an organic expression of Grace's character. (The school's football team is named the Romans, natch.)

Then again, the play is loaded with motifs that seem pasted onto the script like so many author's Post-It Notes. Grace fantasizes about becoming a fireman -- partly because Jeff's father is one and partly because it allows Crowley to introduce a set of raging fires caused by the ineptly sealed coal mine under the town. Clearly, it's not enough for Springfield to be a web of lies and deceptions regarding the violation of women; it has to be a fiery hellmouth, too.

There's little that the director, Tyne Rafaeli, can do to resolve these tonal contradictions, but she does get three first-rate performances from her leads. Susannah Perkins, late of The Wolves, is stunning as Grace, who remains heartbreakingly vulnerable even as she refuses to be filed away under any of the standard categories of suffering. Even if you fight the entire Sabine Women trope, as I did, chances are you'll be knocked out by her climactic speech, a class presentation in which she faces, head-on, the concept of a culture in which rape is an accepted tradition. Doug Harris is a slippery -- and yet not unlikeable -- mixture of uncertainty and opportunism as Jeff, who is clearly chafing under Bobby's possessive ways; he is especially impressive in showing how Jeff makes the terrible decision from which the play's events flow. Alex Breaux is frankly terrifying as Bobby, a sociopath in a football uniform, addicted to acclaim and unafraid to torment anyone who gets in his way; it's a measure of the actor's skill that when, late in the play, tragedy strikes, we can feel Bobby's agony.

The rest of the cast does its best. Jeff Biehl has his moments as the lawyer, but struggles with the role of Jeff's father, who is inexplicably nice to Grace after she lands his son in court. Andy Lucien has some telling moments as a teacher who reaches out to Grace, but he is also lumbered with a tired turn as a bombastic black preacher who overemotes from the pulpit. The best work comes from Jeena Yi, chattering away as the deeply self-involved Monica and putting her imposing presence to work as Hersilia, an ancient Roman matron who shows up, in one of the play's many fantasy sequences, to put in her two cents.

In addition to Hostetter's solid costume designs, the rest of the package is equally slick. Arnulfo Maldonado's set design depicts an old-fashioned high school gymnatorium that cleverly conceals a small pool for a crucial scene set at a nearby lake. Barbara Samuels' lighting reshapes the space as needed and also helps to indicate a variety of locations. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design includes such effects as crackling fire, a peppy musical news show intro, closing car doors, and lapping water.

This altogether perplexing effort is best filed away as a daring -- but only partially successful -- attempt by a gifted writer at dealing creatively with white-hot subject matter. We'll be hearing from Michael Yates Crowley again; next time, he may deliver a play that matches his ambitions. -- David Barbour

(11 September 2017)

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