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Prima Facie

  • Theater, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Jodie Comer in Prima Facie
Photograph: Courtesy Bronwen Sharp Prima Facie

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Jodie Comer straddles defense in Suzie Miller's one-woman play about sexual assault.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

In the opening minutes of Prima Facie, a modern young woman dresses herself up as an old man from centuries ago. Tessa, the defense barrister played by the riveting Jodie Comer in Suzie Miller’s solo play, seems comfortable in her traditional English legal costume: a dark suit, a gray wig, a black gown, a crisp white shirt with a jabot in front. She’s playing in a court whose rules were not invented for her, and she knows how to win—including when she is defending men on trial for sex crimes. “It’s not emotional for me,” she says. “It’s the game. The game of law.”  

Later in the play, the working-class Tessa tells us that she has been driven all her life by her desire to serve justice, and by her faith in the law to provide it. That’s the truth, but not the whole truth. She gets an ego rush playing cat to the witnesses’ mice, and she enjoys the rewards that come from victory. (“Respect. Power.”) And her success within a patriarchal system makes her feel sexy: At a bar, when she tipsily holds forth about the rights of the accused—”‘We believe in innocent until proven guilty. It’s not just a catchphrase, it’s the bedrock of how you keep a society civilized”—it’s partly to impress a male colleague whom she knows to be watching her. (The image that greets the audience at the start of the play is a neon illustration of blind justice that evokes the signage for a strip club.) 

Prima Facie | Photograph: Courtesy Bronwen Sharp

Miller’s tale has a straightforward goal: to situate Tessa on both sides of defense. “The only way the system works is because we all play our roles,” Tessa says, in response to questions about how to defend a person she thinks is guilty. “A lawyer’s job is not that grand. The job is not to know. It’s to not know.” But at the halfway point of Prima Facie, her fortunes are subjected to a traumatic reversal when she is herself the victim of sexual assault. The circumstances are murky: She has had sex with the man before, she is very drunk, she is frozen with shock. But although she is unable to articulate her refusal, she is convinced, in the moment, that he is aware of what he is doing: “How can he not know?”

Although it spends some time playing devil’s advocate for criminal defense, Prima Facie’s position on its central question is clear and, by the end, polemical. (Tessa’s last name, Ensler, is a nod to Eve Ensler, the Vagina Monologues playwright and women’s-safety activist.) As Tessa’s mental health suffers in the aftermath of the assault, director Justin Martin’s staging grows bleaker: Set designer Miriam Buether’s clubby law-office set gives way to absence, and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design cues up emotional music. The complexities of the issue, introduced as evidence earlier, are set aside in a final summation that marks the play as a work of explicit advocacy. 

I leave it to the jury of theatergoers to determine whether the larger legal argument that Miller makes in Prima Facie follows necessarily from Tessa’s specific experience. But about Comer’s performance there can be no doubt: This is a powerful and moving star turn. It has a very different energy from the Broadway season’s other great dramatic performance by a woman. Whereas Jessica Chastain spends A Doll’s House nearly immobile, Comer is a whirlwind: moving furniture, changing costumes, standing on tables, switching into the voices and accents of more than a dozen minor characters as Tessa narrates her story. Her virtuosity is not just a game—it’s emotional. Miller builds a respectable case, but Comer argues it brilliantly. 

Prima Facie. John Golden Theatre (Broadway). By Suzie Miller. Directed by Justin Martin. With Jodie Comer. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.

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Prima Facie | Photograph: Courtesy Bronwen Sharp

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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