By Lucy Komisar
“Prima Facie” and “Walking with Bubbles” are about two women who get into terrible situations with men, a casual lover and a husband. In the first, a smart 20-something barrister at a London “chambers” routinely goes to bars with friends and gets drunk. After one drinking bout, she invites a colleague to her apartment. They previously had sex in his chambers office. She doesn’t want sex now; the booze made her throw up. He carries her from the bathroom to the bed and rapes her. It is fiction.
In the second, a singer and actress, married to a charming writer, has a child, stays married when the man’s odd behavior (depressed by winter) becomes obvious mental illness, self-destructive, and is freed only when he in one of his furious periods divorces her.
Adam follows her to New York, is homeless, and she arranges for him to see their 7-year-old son in Central Park playgrounds. Then, when he gets a rented room (unclear how he can get or keep a job), lets the boy stay with him overnight. But a second time, with the kid inside, he noisily tears the room apart and the landlady calls the police. It is a true story.
Two reactions from a critic and a feminist: Is there something about what society does to/teaches women (and men) that puts them in those destructive situations? Yes, rapists are criminals and should be locked up for long sentences. But should I wonder why a smart lawyer gets drunk so often and leaves herself open to dangerous sex? Why a smart singer should stay married to and live with a man who is mentally ill and endangers her and her son?
Both actresses are nominated for best solo performance by the Drama Desk, of which I’m a member. The first play is on Broadway, the other is at a small off-off-Broadway house. Both performers are very good.
Jodie Comer in “Prima Facie” written by Suzie Miller, directed by Justin Martin, is intense as the very insouciant young lawyer-playgirl whose world is up-ended by a rape and almost more so by her accusation and appearance in court. Jessica Hendy is a charming young mother, very good singer, with style and panache. But the stories are most interesting for the questions they raise about women’s agency. And victimhood. And what has happened to feminist consciousness.
Interesting that when the singer informs her son, by then a teen, of her plan to tell their story, he says, “as long as she didn’t make herself the victim.” But both plays show the women as victims. And seemingly without ability to protect themselves from predatory men.
“Prima Facie” shows two sides of Tessa: first a lawyer who uses every trick to win for her clients, often accused of sexual assaults. Look for the victim’s bit of testimony that can be attacked, raise doubts. Then, as the plaintiff who files a charge against the man who raped her. We see the case when after a few years it finally gets to court, all intervening time shown as her personal suffering.
When Tessa is the accuser, she sees how the case is about winning, not about justice. Clever lawyers asking smart pointed questions. Though how that underlies the system is not really made clear. Is there a conflict between believing that rape victims deserve justice and supporting an easily manipulated system that denies it? The legal system is not just about rape accusations, it’s about corporate cases and every place where money to buy experts counts. Raped women are not the only victims. Read about the Chevron/Donziger case. It could make a play.
“Bubbles” written and performed by Jessica Hendy, directed by Richard Hess, is about a woman who is so infatuated that she is blind-sided by the mental illness of Adam, who threatens her and her son. Trying to help her son connect to his father, she puts herself and the child in danger. Lucky they didn’t fare worse at his violent temper. Yet, she is no dummy. She has the New York smarts to arrange father-son visits to the Museum of Natural History.
As a theater critic, I say that both productions are fine. Comer is powerful as the aggressive lawyer and then the sorrowful victim. Hendy is Broadway quality in her acting and singing to words and music by Brianna Kothari Barnes.
But as a feminist, I find something troubling about these plays. We are decades past the second wave of feminist consciousness. (I was a national vice-president of NOW 1970-71.) These women — one fictional, one real — are smart. Why are they utterly unaware of the dangers of lover/husband predators? Did they miss or reject what the 70s feminist consciousness revealed? This is not about blaming the victim, but addressing what women need to do in a society of lurking male attackers. Women need to live defensively. They need to challenge systems that can be used against them. The plays don’t deal with that.
“Prima Facie.” Written by Suzie Miller, directed by Justin Martin. Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St, NYC. 212-239-6200 Runtime 100min. Opened April 23, 2023. Closes July 2, 2023.
“Walking With Bubbles.” Written and performed by Jessica Hendy. Music and lyrics by Brianna Kothari Barnes. Directed by Richard Hess. AMT Theatre, 354 West 45th St, NYC. Runtime 100min. Opened March 31, 2023. Closes June 18, 2023. Review on NY Theatre Wire.