Girls in Trouble
by Jonathan Reynolds
The Flea Theater, 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.