BY MICHAEL MUSTO | One-person shows are among my least favorite types of theater because they can verge on glorified lectures instead of real drama. Without various characters popping up to act out scenes as they occur, the one-person show usually resorts to an actor simply looking out at the audience and telling you about stuff that happened. Any dramatics were in the past and now someone’s simply going to recount/replay every moment of that, without assistance from anyone else.
Of course, there are exceptions, and Prima Facie would seem to be one of them, based on the advance hype. Written by Suzie Miller (an Australian scribe with a background in law and science) and starring Jodie Comer (Killing Eve), this production has pedigree, having just won Olivier awards for Best Play and Best Actress. What’s more, it deals with the serious topic of the legal challenges that victims of rape face, so this isn’t one of those shows where an actor simply natters on about trivial doings.
And it does come as a real Broadway happening, thanks to crisp writing, a savvy physical production, and a powerhouse performance from Comer, who never leaves the stage for 100 intermissionless minutes.
She’s Tessa Ensler, a hotshot British lawyer who starts out by describing some of her courtroom triumphs, which involve playing the system and getting men accused of sexual abuse off the hook. But Tessa’s bravado implodes when she becomes a victim herself, having been raped by a male cohort who covered her mouth with his hand as he did so. Now she’s in court again, but this time it’s to try to remove any barriers to her mouth and try to convict the coworker, only to be reminded that the system she had successfully played as a defense barrister is suddenly stacked against her as a victim. Tessa is made to feel like she’s the one on trial, as her behavior during the rape is questioned and assailed.
As directed by Justin Martin, Comer jumps on tables, paces around, and talks nonstop (often shrieking), managing to be fully in charge of her performance as a woman melting down from basically being raped twice—once by the court system. (“Prima facie” means “based on the first impression” or, basically, “assumed.”.) Miriam Buether’s set and Natasha Chivers’ lighting work deftly with her, providing a lawyer’s chambers setting with Orwellian floor-to-ceiling shelves of folders, all ominously staring down at her and us. The office transforms into the court room—and at one point, Comer is testifying while facing upstage as her face appears to us on a video screen aimed our way. The most powerful moment has the house lights coming up as Tessa delivers her final speech to the court, saying that the system was concocted by men for men, and that it lacks much needed nuance. She argues that rape victims should be viewed differently than the victims of less personal and intrusive crimes. “The legal system made me look like a liar,” she concludes. “The legal system feels broken.”
The score by Rebecca Lucy Taylor (a/k/a Self Esteem) and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design have a pulsing heartbeat sound ominously permeating some of the proceedings. Tessa is still going at the end, but a part of her will always be shattered by having been assaulted and then being treated like a criminal for it. As the play wraps up, the folders start to light up, a few at a time; they have truly become eyes looking down at everyone—especially the justice system—with mockery and caution.
And so: Have I gotten over my fear of one-person shows? No. I would have preferred this to be played out in a full production with the various characters involved. If we keep going this route, I’m afraid someone might turn 12 Angry Men into One Angry Man and have Juror 8 stand there alone and play all the parts. But this play still works because it’s told through one person’s increasingly sensitized perspective. Thanks to Suzie and Jodie, we believe women.
At the Golden Theatre (252 W. 45th St.). For tickets, click here to visit Telecharge.com. Click here to visit the play’s website. Starting April 5, the production began releasing ten $10 seats at every performance for the following week. The lottery opens at Midnight Tuesday into Wednesday and you will have the next ten hours to enter. Click here to enter the digital lottery.
Michael Musto is a columnist, pop cultural and political pundit, NYC nightlife chronicler, author, and the go-to gossip responsible for the long-running (1984-2013) Village Voice column, “La Dolce Musto.”
His work regularly appears on this website as well as Queerty.com and thedailybeast.com, and he is writing for the new Village Voice, which made its debut in April of 2021. Follow Musto on Instagram, via @michaelmusto.
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