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Theater review by Raven Snook
Usual Girls, Ming Peiffer's uncompromising exploration of a Korean-American girl's sexual evolution, delivers multiple punches to the gut—and a few that land a bit lower. Caught at the intersection of misogyny and racism, Kyeoung (a riveting Midori Francis) battles prejudice and preconceptions in a series of unnerving vignettes. Precocious playground banter becomes nasty when it turns to her looks and anatomy. A squealy sleepover for prepubescent girls devolves into an abusive nightmare. Teenage BFFs betray her, while her alcoholic father (Karl Kenzler, whose over-the-top performance is the evening's only false note) grooms her to be a pleaser. The only person Kyeoung can lean on is an unnamed adult Woman (an empathetic Jennifer Lim) who helps her through a few fraught experiences, including her first pubic shave (presented up close in the Roundabout Underground's claustrophobic theater).
Does the character played by Lim represent a grown-up Kyeoung, looking back on the moments that shaped her life? Or is she a fantasy fairy godmother, or an everywoman also navigating rape culture? Peiffer, in her professional debut, purposefully eschews answers. Director Tyne Rafaeli elicits raw performances from her fearless, mostly female cast; she has been developing the piece with Peiffer for several years, and she frequently injects a horror-movie vibe, giving you a visceral sense of Kyeoung's perpetual unease. Although it includes many darkly humorous moments, especially early on as the girls get jiggy with stuffed animals, Usual Girls is a primal scream of a play that wants to make you squirm, and it succeeds. If it seems messy, painful and upsetting, well, that's how it can feel to be a woman.
Roundabout Underground (Off Broadway). By Ming Peiffer. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.