Just as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shouts out loud about rethinking campus rape cases, the Playwrights Realm opens The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias, Off-Broadway at the Duke.
The playwright is not actually the titular Grace Matthias, but Michael Yates Crowley. Grace (Susannah Perkins) is 15 years old, a high school girl whose art course contains a homework assignment on — by lucky dramaturgical coincidence — Jacques-Louis David’s famous canvas, “The Rape of the Sabine Women.”
This production follows the Playwrights Realm’s successful presentation of The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe (transferring to Broadway this season), which tells the tense tale of a women’s soccer team and indicates that the theater company is commendably eager to deal with women’s issues head-on.
So here is Grace’s story. While confused as to why women cannot be fire fighters when they grow up — her heart is set on it — she is also inclined to give her heart to Jeff (Doug Harris), the wide receiver for the Romans, the school’s football team. Jeff happens to be as uncertain of himself as Grace is of herself; though it beggars her belief, he’s drawn to her. And for revealing his romantic urge, Jeff is mocked by Bobby (Alex Breaux), a nasty teammate whose interminable gay-baiting hints at — guess what!
After winning a nighttime home game, Jeff takes Grace to a deserted lake. Initially she is reluctant but then he cajoles her into swimming naked with him. (At Jeff’s urging, they have already jointly, but not adjacently, urinated at the lake. Fun dating pastime?) All is thus first-teenage-crush until Bobby, jealous and bringing liquor, crashes the scene. Bobby and Jeff get Grace drunk, then sick, then unconscious. It is not seen by the audience, but Jeff has his way with Grace.
The ensuing trial hews to all-too-familiar news accounts of alleged rape cases in which young males are eventually declared innocent and young women eventually condemned not only to be branded as loose but held responsible for risking the young male’s future. Grace, in this case, is further criticized by her cheerleading and scatterbrained best friend Monica (Jeena Yi), her nervous-wreck guidance counselor (Eva Kaminsky) and even her preacher (Andy Lucien, also doubling as Grace’s art teacher).
A sympathetic reviewer yearns to report that the Playwrights Realm delivers a worthy theatrical one-two punch. But not so. Though the obviously well-meaning Crowley hopes to encourage audiences to understand the issues and double standards here, and carefully incorporates many particulars of alleged rape episodes to weight his arguments, it’s clearly presented as dark satire. As the first scenes of the play unfolded, I thought director Tyne Rafaeli was intentionally distorting Crowley’s script, pushing the cast into full-force farce. Sadly, also annoyingly, such a comic vein doesn’t work.
Throughout the proceedings, a character identified in the program as The News (Chas Carey) makes stentorian announcements as to the progress of the court case. There’s a broadly conniving defense attorney (Jeff Biehl) bluntly manipulating Grace through her court appearance; there’s that clueless guidance counselor, that two-dimensional clergyman. There’s the art class in which the sincere teacher talks up David’s painting as the clichés bloom: Bobby relentlessly tossing a football in the air, Monica caressing her pom-poms.
Grace never has a single levelheaded person on her side. It feels convenient how Crowley removes any support system for her — a father who vanished; a mother who works the night shift.
Grace’s stated determination to become a fire fighter persists from get-go to let-go but, increasingly, it distracts from Crowley’s primary themes. Then the playwright latches onto an abstruse conceit: Grace discerns a fire in her makeup. She recognizes an inflammatory abusive streak in males. She concludes that men require a metaphorical sort of firefighter. Talk of stretching a point to make a dramatic dent. At least three times someone on stage insists that if God wanted women to pursue fire fighting, they would be called “firepeople.” Perhaps the gag is mildly funny once but definitely no more than once.
Set designer Anulfo Maldonado allows the action to occur in a gym/auditorium-with-stage; curtains part when required so that Grace and Jeff can jump into a short, rectangular trough serving as the lake. Åsta Bennie Hostetter dresses the ensemble well, even for a Romans costume sock hop. Kat Alexander is credited as “Sexual Health Consultant.”
Since the actors are largely expected to carry on like hysterics in a snake pit, they can’t be responsible for their excesses. Still, Perkins, Harris and Breaux imbue their characters with whatever dignity — or gracelessness — is called for.
Why is “The Rape of the Sabine Women” on the program cover not from the famous David canvas? Why do we see a flipped detail from a Pietro da Cortona depiction — in which women later forgive and marry their abductors, a la Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Grace’s teacher would recognize the art-history discrepancy. This production should do so, too.