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“I think that women are really not going to go for this,” Jonathan Reynolds predicts of his new play, Girls in Trouble. “Particularly women over 40, because they’ve been to the barricades with this issue.” The topic of the drama, set in three time periods, is abortion; and what makes the show so shocking is its choice depiction of a radical pro-life activist. “People have basically said, 'How dare you put somebody so antiabortion onstage—and not make fun of her?’" Reynolds notes. “The fact that I bring up abortion as an issue to be reexamined on moral grounds will be viewed as conservative.”
Not that Reynolds goes out of his way to resist such labels. An engaging writer and charming raconteur—as demonstrated in his food columns for the New York Times Magazine and his 2003 solo show, Dinner with Demons—he is also one of the few openly right-of-center playwrights working prominently today, and he has ardently courted controversy before. It took 12 years, he says, to find a theater willing to stage his racily race-themed 1997 comedy, Stonewall Jackson’s House, a dark comedy about identity politics that wound up short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.
Girls in Trouble has met with similar resistance. Commissioned five years ago by the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, the play was never produced there. (“They kind of finked out,” says Reynolds. “They were very brave about commissioning it, but not so brave about actually doing it.”) It then made the rounds of New York theaters, without any takers. “What’s frustrating is that they won’t fess up and say, 'I hate the politics of this play so I’m not putting it on,’” Reynolds explains. “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.”
Enter the adventurous Jim Simpson of Tribeca’s Flea Theater. He first learned of the piece from the playwright A.R. Gurney—whose Bush-whacking comedy Mrs. Farnsworth premiered at the Flea in 2004—and although the company’s previous political offerings have trended leftward, Simpson felt the piece would be a good match for the Flea’s young resident acting troupe, the Bats. “Off-Off Broadway is supposed to be the place where difficult things can be done,” he says. “At the Flea, that’s part of our obligation and our joy.”
Reynolds’s goal is to stimulate an honest discussion of the ethics of abortion. “In my opinion, a lot of the old lefty arguments have not been brought up to date, and the right-wing ones have science on their side now,” he argues. “I’ve talked to many people from the pro-choice organizations, and they don’t have anything to say other than it’s a woman’s right to choose. But I do question that and say, 'Oh yeah? Who says you’ve got the right to choose?’ That’s what a character in the play basically says.”
“I think for women of a particular generation, this isn’t something even to be discussed: It is a basic human right,” Simpson observes. “A consideration of what abortion is, even just on a clinical level, isn’t something that they’re interested in encountering. And so Jonathan, in wanting to consider this, has had to pull out a lot of interesting playwriting in order to make it happen.” If the play strikes some people as unbalanced, Reynolds suggests, it may be because the pro-life side is so seldom heard onstage. “It’s heard on Fox News and some other places, but the stage lags far behind the political discussion and what’s in the air,” he says. “So the theater’s taken less seriously, politically, because it never represents the other point of view.”
Knee-jerk conservatives, however, may not find themselves thrilled with Girls in Trouble either—especially in the play’s shocking final section. “Jonathan really, in a spirited way, addresses both sides of the issue and comes to his own conclusion about it,” says Simpson. “Is it right? Is it left? I don’t think anyone is going to find a great deal of comfort with it on either side of the fence.” Reynolds feels the same way. “ I’m trying to take these issues to their logical extreme,” he says. “At the end of the play, I bet you won’t be able to tell which side of the issue I’m actually on.”
Girls in Trouble begins previews on Fri 12 at the Flea Theater.