Theater Review: The Wolves Has Bark and Bite

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From The Wolves, at the Duke.

Nine high-school girls on a soccer team somewhere in suburbia yack and confide and bluster and gossip, all at once, about everything from the Khmer Rouge to the relative merits of pads versus tampons. That’s the opening blast of Sarah DeLappe’s astonishing new play The Wolves, and if you think your ear will gradually get ahead of its brilliant polyphony, think again. You do hear what you must: The director, Lila Neugebauer, has calibrated the volume and the emphasis so you’ll never be totally lost. But you’ll nevertheless be lost, in the most realistic and powerful way, as the play darts through a month or two of pregame practices on the bright green Astroturf during the course of an eventful winter in the girls’ lives. Without specifying what, other than soccer, it is about, the play is about almost too much to bear.

Clearly DeLappe, who is getting her M.F.A., at Brooklyn College, has been paying close attention not only to 16- and 17-year-old girls but to playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Annie Baker, for whom plays are emphatically not a way of saying the same things that prose can. Their line of dramaturgy involves a careful balancing of unmediated realism on one side, the kind with no organizing principle, and overly crafted stories, with digestible lessons, on the other. Lean too far to the left, and a play delivers nothing but bafflement; too far to the right, and it’s an Aesop fable. The Wolves splits the difference almost perfectly. The firecracker dialogue, even half garbled in the rush of it, has the unmistakable ping of reality, as if transcribed from tape recordings. It is both hilarious (“Let’s get out there and kick some Hornet boo-tay”) and perfectly expressive of each character who speaks it. Its individual expressivity is an especially good thing because dialogue is the main way we learn to differentiate and track the nine girls, who are dressed nearly identically in green uniforms, and are referred to mostly by number. No. 25 is the captain, all exhortation and catchphrases but gradually discovering an authentic self beneath that; No. 7 is the striker, a position name that captures her personality. (She is the sarcastic, sexually experienced girl who says “fuck” constantly and causes trouble.) There are also the super-nice (but possibly bulimic) No. 2; the stressed-out, taciturn goalie, No. 00; plus the new girl, the brain, the stoner, the innocent, and the Armenian. Despite these facile pigeonholes, they all grow into full people, or rather we grow patiently into seeing them as such.

Though the focus is on their personalities, and the way they clash and align as the winter progresses, DeLappe does not leave us entirely in the dark about her larger thematic concerns. Girlhood, obviously, is the general subject, but not in any saccharine sense. Over and over she shows us how young selves are formed (or deformed) in the clash of innate character and external challenge or threat. A few scenes follow too similar an arc: Joking leads to badgering and badgering leads to explosion. Still, this pattern helps us grasp DeLappe’s portrait of late adolescence as something akin to a series of industrial accidents. For the stronger girls, the crucible of sports and society (and each other) produces an even stronger sense of self; for the weaker girls, a weaker one. And toward the end, in a walk-on monologue as a soccer mom in extremis, Kate Arrington, excruciatingly good, shows us how even the must successful annealment of character cannot protect a woman from everything.

Each of the members of the rest of the cast — believably young but obviously well-trained — works perfectly in tandem with the others while also stepping up to her solo moments. As with baseball cards, you’ll have your favorites and want to collect ’em all. I was especially moved by Lizzy Jutila as No. 00, the goalie, whose character is given an astonishing climax in what amounts to a nonverbal aria. But instead of individual performance stats what we really want to be collecting and poring over is the bigger fact of new work like this. The Wolves, DeLappe’s first professional production, is an example of what may be a new model for making that possible. Developed and mounted by the Playwrights Realm, a 10-year-old nonprofit dedicated to supporting early-career writers, it ran for a month earlier this fall, then returned two weeks ago in a commercial remounting. As was true of Small Mouth Sounds earlier this year, its second life should help give it a third and a fourth, here and around the country. Playwriting is a crucible like adolescence; with luck, this extraordinary new work will survive its development to become a popular one, too.

The Wolves is at the Duke through December 29.

Theater Review: The Wolves