American conservatives are so culturally under-represented on New York stages that producing a smart, tough, well-conceived piece of right-of-center theater would be a little like setting off fireworks in a lecture hall where everyone has gone to sleep. For its first act, “Girls in Trouble” suggests it could be that play — but then squanders its chance in the cartoony second half. Playwright Jonathan Reynolds makes some smart arguments about abortion, but he undercuts them repeatedly with lazy dramaturgy and talkradio-level straw-man caricatures of his ideological opponents.
Opening scene indicates some welcome ambition — in 1963 (pre-Roe v. Wade) Ohio, two college kids are more or less press-ganging a young woman into getting an illegal abortion. When Reynolds isn’t using the scene to redress old wrongs, it’s tense and hard to watch in a good kind of way.
Hutch (Andy Gershenzon), the unwilling father-to-be, explains the intricacies of his love life to creepy friend Teddy (Brett Aresco) while totally ignoring the girl in the back seat (a terrific Betsy Lippitt), whose pregnancy he sees as collateral damage and nothing more.
From here to the abortionist’s house, it’s a scary and morally dubious trip for all kinds of reasons, coercion not the least of them.
Disaster strikes, and the lights come up on a new scene, set 20 years later, starring the daughter (Eboni Booth) of the unlicensed doctor (Akyiaa Wilson in a truly thankless part). The middle third of the show is written as a poetry slam, and not a bad one, either — it’s here that Reynolds seems to show some real sympathy for a pro-choice character.
Of course, that character becomes the playwright’s ideological sock puppet in the third act, which suggests Reynolds has trouble adopting the perspectives of people who disagree with him. Witness Amanda (poor Laurel Holland), the self-satisfied host of a cooking show called “The Virtuous Vegan,” who happens to be 25 weeks pregnant.
The rumbling bass underscoring in the hemorrhaging scene in Flea a.d. Jim Simpson’s production is too much, but one suspects such criticism will fall on deaf ears. The director doesn’t have much use for understatement, making it difficult for Reynolds to communicate his points with any subtlety.
But subtlety isn’t really Reynolds’ strong suit; nor humility. He could have served his play a lot better by focusing on a single issue rather than trying to take down an entire cultural perspective armed with little but one-liners.
Instead, we get a potentially thoughtful discussion of abortion hobbled by throwaway potshots. Communism is for idiots; vegetarianism is for idiots; opposing the death penalty — also for idiots. This is something liberal playwrights do all the time, but they ought not to, either. It’s intellectually offensive to dismiss your opponents as fools, regardless of what side of the fence you’re standing on.
Occasionally, Reynolds appears to have spent a little more time on a satirical jab, and it really hits home — the skill with which he sinks his teeth into NPR would make P.J. O’Rourke proud. Unfortunately, this tends to highlight the less-trenchant surrounding material.
The fatal problem with “Girls in Trouble” is its climax, which involves one character performing an emergency C-section with a butcher knife for a scalpel, dental floss for sutures, and nothing but Percocet as an anesthetic. The scene piles absurdity upon absurdity just when the play needs to make a serious point. Narrative failure ends up equaling ideological failure.
What makes this so frustrating is that Booth’s character actually makes some interesting anti-abortion arguments — arguments usually answered with just the kind of ad hominem nonsense Reynolds uses here, which is to say, not answered at all. Had Reynolds avoided snide cheap shots at everyone he disagrees with, or perhaps been honest enough not to make his proxy a black woman, the play would have benefited a great deal.
Reynolds’ male characters have a lot more going on than his women, though the women are the focus of this play. But between its intellectual dishonesty and its unrelenting smugness, the script’s virtues end up nearly inaudible.