Girls in Trouble

by Jonathan Reynolds

The Flea Theater, New York

New York

Do you know the story of how Cyril Connolly, the celebrated editor of Horizon in the 1940s, accepted a piece from a writer only to sit on it indefinitely? When the impatient scribe inquired about its fate, Connolly, in his best mandarin style, explained that while it was good enough to be accepted by Horizon, it was not good enough to be published by Horizon.

I wonder if the pooh-bahs at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre had that story in the back of their minds when they commissioned Jonathan Reynolds’s new play, Girls in Trouble, and then declined to stage it? “They were very brave about commissioning it,” Reynolds noted in an interview, “but not so brave about actually doing it.”

I have no idea whether Connolly was right to consign the work of that aspiring littérateur to oblivion. But having just seen Girls in Trouble at the Flea Theater here, I can say with confidence that the folks at Long Wharf made a grave error. Girls in Trouble, briskly directed by Jim Simpson, the Flea’s artistic director, is the most thought-provoking (and also the funniest) play I’ve seen in New York since—well, since May 1997, when I saw (twice) Stonewall Jackson’s House, Reynolds’s razor-sharp play about race and political correctness.

Yes, yes, I know that every artist worth his state subsidy is supposed to be “provoking,” “challenging,” “transgressing,” and otherwise assaulting the integument, proffering something mind-numbingly banal, fathomlessly unintelligible, or at least indescribably repulsive to chic audiences eager to crowd onto that increasingly vast playing field known as “the cutting edge.” The limousines are backed up for blocks on opening nights at museums, theaters, and other cultural emporia as this season’s Wunderkinder do for the herd of independent minds what candidate Obama did for Chris Matthews’s leg.

But have you noticed that all that supposedly “transgressive” fare simply reinforces a set of liberal clichés about sex, race, capitalism, America, the moral character of corporations, the predilections of religious figures (unless they hail from some certifiably disenfranchised religious group), “patriarchy,” AIDS, Republicans, the environment, and last but not least, abortion? There’s really only one possible opinion about all these subjects. Hamlet told his visiting thespians that the purpose of their art was “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” Our domesticated pseudo-radicals simply hold the mirror up in front of the reigning dogmas of the day. Their motto, like that of Holiday Inn, is “the best surprise is no surprise.”

Jonathan Reynolds does not play this game. Which is why it took him nearly 12 years to find a theater willing to stage Stonewall Jackson’s House. Write a play depicting Jesus having gay sex with Judas, as did Terrence McNally in Corpus Christi, and you’re in like Flynn. Theaters up and down Broadway will be clamoring for your stuff. Seriously challenge the political orthodoxy on any hot-button issue, however, and it’s back-of-the-bus time. Stonewall Jackson’s House went on to be shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, which is perhaps why it took Reynolds only five years to find a venue for Girls in Trouble, on view at the Flea Theater in New York until March 21.

“What’s frustrating,” Reynolds acknowledged, “is that they won’t fess up and say, ‘I hate the politics of this play so I’m not putting it on.’ Instead they say, ‘Oh, the character’s weak here,’ or ‘I don’t believe this.’ And maybe they’re right. But my bet is they’re worried about their board or the group they run with.” I’ll see that bet and raise you ten.

The Flea Theater is not what you would call a large house. I counted just over 40 seats in the basement performance space where the play is showing (there’s another small theater upstairs). But the 14-year-old establishment does seem to live up to its announced goal: “To present distinctive work that raises the standards of Off-Off Broadway for artists and audiences alike.” Members of its young resident troupe, The Bats, man the ticket counter and the bar, they’re ushers, and they shuttle props on and off stage. No union rules here, which is one reason they’re still in business. The actors, unpampered, throw themselves into their performances with rare energy and intelligence. It’s the real thing.

In Stonewall Jackson’s House, Reynolds said some unpalatable things about the miasma of political correctness that hovers over the theater world. Gasp. Titters. Did the black girl in period dress showing folks around the Stonewall Jackson house museum really just offer to go home with the gormless white couple to be their slave? Okay—but “We’re not going to call you ‘slave.’ We’ll call you an ‘associate.’” Yikes. And that’s just the beginning.

In Girls in Trouble, Reynolds tackles another impossible subject: abortion. The play is in three acts. The first act shows two college kids, Hutch (Andy Gershenzon) and Teddy (Brett Aresco), hurtling down Interstate 71 outside Cleveland at one in the morning. It’s 1962, a couple of years after the FDA approved the Pill, a decade before Roe v. Wade. Passed out in the backseat is Barb (Betsy Lippitt), a few months’ pregnant, one of the many girls Hutch has bedded, to the intense admiration and envy of Teddy. They’re looking for an abortionist in a seedy “colored neighborhood” and they’re late. They need to hurry because Barb has to be back first thing to take her econ final.

Reynolds excels in wrapping raw truths in the sugar of humor. The exchanges between Hutch and Teddy about sex; the scene in which Hutch has cursory, vertical sex with Barb in order to cajole her into having the abortion (“Jesus, what you have to do sometimes”); the scenes with Sandra (Akyiaa Wilson), the former Army nurse turned abortionist, and her seven-year-old daughter Cindy (Eboni Booth)—all are both brutal and hilarious.

“How, how do you do it?” asks Hutch. “Massage the uterus,” Sandra explains. “Induce a miscarriage.” Hutch to Teddy a bit later: “Where is the uterus?” Cindy, who sneaks downstairs to play with her newborn kittens, seems at first to offer a humanizing touch to the tawdry scene. Then one of the kittens bites her, and she casually snaps its neck and lets it drop to the floor. So much for that little life.

Fast forward two decades. It’s 1983. A lot has changed in America. The sexual revolution has swept the country. So has the feminist revolution, one of many things that proved that “free love” would turn out to be an oxymoron that tendered an expensive tab. Act II is brief, maybe 15 minutes. The whole thing is devoted to a sort of rap monologue by “Sunny,” the little girl Cindy 20 years on. She’s fallen for Danny, aspiring electronics entrepreneur, who seems to have gone off her a bit. This has made Sunny bitter. “Who’s got the power now, dog? I do—women do. We got the law on our side.” Sunny’s just discovered she’s pregnant. Danny is delighted: He wants to marry her and dreams of walking his child to school. Sunny is not so sure:

If I decide and me and me alone to have Danny Junior or Lucy—and ho, it’s all up to me—I could dee-stroy your life. For twenty-one years! You have to support this kid for twenty-one years if I tells you to, that’s the law! .  .  . Ha ha ha—you gonna pay for not lovin’ me. You won’t get to high profilin’, Mr. Radio Shack, you be lucky to be a salesdog at Radio Shack when you’re 50!

Eboni Booth gives a mesmerizing performance as Sunny, aided not a little by a brilliantly written script. Reynolds has perfect pitch for the rap patter and street lingo, which he unfolds and elaborates like a virtuoso performing a Liszt cadenza. Act II ends with Sunny wailing that, since Danny doesn’t love her, she’ll abort the child: “My momma used to do abortions for a living back when it was illegal, nothin’ to it, ’cept for that once. .  .  . And you think I won’t do it? I snaps cats’ necks.”

Skip forward another 20 years. Act III—by far the longest of the play—opens to the emetic strains of the All Things Considered theme. “I’m Wellesley St. Louis St. Drem,” says the radio voiceover, “and tonight on All Things Considered we’ll look at just how awful the world is, why America made it that way, and the unmitigated success of apology in our foreign policy. But first, stay tuned for The Virtuous Vegan, with our favorite chef de cuisine, Amanda Stark [Laurel Holland].”

Ah, the Virtuous Vegan! I’m sure you know one or two. We’re in Amanda’s kitchen and immediately learn she’s had a bad day. She was mowed down by a bicycle messenger, who dislocated her hip. In the emergency room, the doctor has alarming news. Not only was Amanda banged up, she was also knocked up: She’s 25 weeks pregnant. Amanda instantly made an appointment to have an abortion the next day. She gets a call from an OB-GYN at the hospital who offers to come over and tell her about the strategies the hospital has to help celebrities like her avoid the paparazzi and nurses who might be stringers for the National Enquirer.

Well, the person who shows up turns out to be Cynthia, née Cindy, formerly Sunny, who married Danny after all. Danny is now sole owner of Home Theatres International, “bigger than Radio Shack.” They have six children and Cynthia, supported in part by Danny’s millions, is part of a pro-life group that goes about trying to convince women not to abort their babies. Her success rate thus far: one hundred percent.

The women go at it hammer, tongs, and kitchen knives when Amanda discovers that Cynthia is not the doctor she claimed to be. But then Amanda has the idea of inviting Cynthia onto her show as a guest. For it was not so much Amanda’s meatless recipes that boosted her to stardom on NPR; it was her meaty recipe of mixing politics with cooking. “I loved it,” says Cynthia, “when you had Bruce Willis on making that cactus frittata and in the process got him to reveal his right-wingery. And then julienned him like a cabbage.” (Food obviously plays a starring role in Jonathan Reynolds’s life: He wrote a cookery column for the New York Times for several years and, in his 2003 solo performance piece Dinner with Demons, he cooked a five-course meal onstage eight times a week.)

“Often the unknowns are better guests than the superstars,” Amanda confides. “The one person I regret never getting was William F. Buckley. The one I can’t get now is Christopher Hitchens.”

The verbal pas de deux between Amanda and Cynthia is both coruscatingly funny and breath-stoppingly dramatic. The pro-life and pro-choice positions are advanced and parried with a seasoned debater’s skill. Both actresses revel in their roles. And I should flag Eboni Booth’s riveting demonstration that she was not carrying any concealed weapons. She convinced me, and I, sitting a mere 10 feet away, made a careful inspection.

I won’t spoil the ending, which is shocking in about 27 different ways. The denouement leaves the viewer not with a tidy solution but a complicated, morally ambiguous knot—just as life is in the habit of doing.

The adjective “Shavian” occurs frequently in discussions of Jonathan Reynolds’s work. Old Bernard was in many ways a crackpot; he was certainly a political ignoramus of the first water. But he was an effective playwright because he excelled in dramatizing difficult ideas—ideas, that is, that were difficult because they were at odds with his audience’s prejudices and preconceptions.

Reynolds is indeed Shavian in this sense. In articles and interviews, he is invariably described as “conservative” or listing rightwards. I have no idea about the nature of his personal political convictions. But Girls in Trouble is not a conservative play. For one thing, Mrs. Grundy would be distinctly displeased at its exuberant deployment of four-letter words and the acts they describe. But Girls in Trouble will be denounced as conservative because it does not pay homage to the illiberal “liberal” pieties that are regnant in our culture, including our theatrical culture. Particularly inexcusable, of course, is its complex but largely sympathetic presentation of a committed and articulate pro-lifer. What an outrage!

“I thought progressives were supposed to be so open to new ideas,” Cynthia says to Amanda. It is part of Jonathan Reynolds’s accomplishment to show us just how closed that vaunted openness can be.

Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, is the author of the forthcoming Much Ado About Noting: A Pedographophilic Chrestomathy of Sly, Admonitory, Informative, Scurrilous, and Amusing Observations from the Bottom of the Page.

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