Theater Review: On Wolves Who Kick

From The Wolves, at Lincoln Center.

The Wolves are back in town.

Last summer, Sarah DeLappe’s play about an indoor girls’ soccer team — the young playwright’s first work to be professionally staged — started sending shockwaves through the New York theater scene. Its sold-out Off Broadway premiere at the Playwrights Realm was soon followed by an equally sold-out return engagement, Obie and Drama Desk awards for the play’s ensemble cast, and a host of other accolades, including a finalist nod for the 2017 Drama Pulitzer. DeLappe became the playwriting equivalent of one of her own young athletes — the new girl on the team who buries a goal via bicycle kick and immediately attracts the attention of college recruiting scouts, prompting stunned whispers from her open-mouthed teammates: “She’s never played before?? … There’s no fucking way.”

Now The Wolves takes the stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where Laura Jellinek’s elegant set, an extended swath of Astroturf, gives us the feeling that the green goes on forever. Lila Neugebauer, who directed the play’s premiere and whose powerful staging of Zoe Kazan’s After the Blast just finished its run right upstairs from The Wolves, again captains a crack team of outstanding young actresses, most of whom first suited up for the original production. Neugebauer’s touch is both delicate and decisive. She doesn’t dress plays up or weight them down with excess conceptual baggage. Her style is ideal for new works: crisp, clear, actor-focused, and confidently unobtrusive. Like a good coach, she’s underneath the performance of every player, buoying both team and text, helping the whole project find its rhythm.

The Wolves needs a director like Neugebauer. It also needs a killer ensemble. As a piece of writing, it’s undeniably strong, but also noticeably crafted — there’s something about its arc that feels too neatly calibrated to be truly astonishing. I don’t want to call the play manipulative, but DeLappe knows exactly the order in which to stack its emotional blocks. Her characters are ultimately much fresher than her architecture — and so, enter the actors. Along with Neugebauer, the nine young women who prowl the practice pitch in The Wolves take a good play and go a long way toward making it a great one.

We first meet the players in their warm-up circle, stretching in unison and gabbing at breakneck speed about everything from periods (“What if it ran down and like … stained the ball?!”) to religion (“I hear she like speaks in tongues”) to the Khmer Rouge (“They’re like Nazis in Cambodia”). If you’ve ever spent time around packs of teenagers, the high-velocity overlapping banter — with its cocktail of profanity, esoterica, excited squeals, snap judgments, derpiness, and depth — will immediately feel familiar. DeLappe has an ear for how the young and hyper-socially-conscious both echo each other and stand out in a group, their latent struggle for unison punctuated by unmistakable solos, some intentional and others very much not.

Listening to the Wolves’ buzzy repartee, we gradually begin to distinguish the individual instruments that make up the music. No. 7 (the girls are identified only by their jersey numbers) is sexually precocious, belligerent, and deeply invested in looking cool. She really likes saying “Fuck.” No. 13 is kind of a doofus (maybe a pothead?), the one that can be counted on for silly accents and politically incorrect jokes. No. 8 is bubbly and sweet and probably more stressed out than she lets on. No. 11 is smart, contemplative, and tense (“They’re both therapists,” she says mournfully of her parents later in the play. “…I don’t wanna talk about it”). No. 2 is well-meaning, spacey, prone to accidents and random bouts of enthusiastic screaming, and, worrisomely, very skinny and getting skinnier. No. 25, the captain, is tough and dependable and takes her job very seriously. No. 00 is the chronically anxious, academically high-achieving goalie. No. 46 is the awkward, home-schooled new girl. And No. 14 is No. 7’s insecure friend. We glean less about her than the other girls over the course of the play, and this is part of DeLappe’s careful, if sometimes overly apparent, construction.

The play is a series of warm-ups, following the team through their winter season. “C’mon, it’s just indoor,” says No. 2 at one point and I couldn’t help grinning with nostalgia. (She’s right — we all used to downplay indoor soccer. It just bridged the gap between travel and varsity seasons. But we all used to play it, too. Because even in the off-season, soccer was still life.) DeLappe has spoken about her childhood affection for war movies, and how with The Wolves, she was interested in writing a play in which the warriors were teenage girls — a story for “We few, we happy few, we band of sisters.” Her intention — to portray girls as “nuanced, very idiosyncratic people” and as powerful athletes, not as “girlfriends or sex objects or manic pixie dream girls” — shines through in her well-observed characters and in the marvelous actors bringing them life. The young cast is superb all around, and though it feels callous to mention just a few, I’m still thinking about Susannah Perkins’s furrowed brow and thoughtful stare as No. 11, the deceptive cheeriness of Midori Francis as No. 8, Tedra Millan’s hunched shoulders and excruciating sense of social timing as No. 46, and Brenna Coates’s all-too-recognizable cool girl, a powerful performance in its initial unlikability and ultimate sympathy.

There’s a tenth actor rounding out the cast of The Wolves who’s also doing moving work in a small but emotionally punishing role. Mia Barron as “Soccer Mom” doesn’t enter the field until the game is almost over, but she brings with her a whole world that we haven’t yet glimpsed: adulthood. After we’ve spent nearly an hour and a half with the teenage teammates, Barron feels like an alien presence. She’s wracked with grief and bewilderment (to explain it would be to give away the play’s most significant twist), and her attempts to communicate with the girls are like tiny, echoing shouts across a canyon. They don’t yet speak the same language — they can’t. They’re only just beginning to glimpse the extent of human suffering. What they have now is this field, this game, each other — a world that’s both battleground and safe haven.

From lights up to lights down, The Wolves runs 90 minutes. That’s the length of a soccer game. Which is both satisfying in an “ah, how clever” kind of way, and a sign of DeLappe’s commitment to tidiness. She’s got a wonderfully exciting voice, and she clearly recognizes the alchemy worked on a strong play text by a team of first-rate collaborators. My hope is that as she continues to write, she’ll loosen her grip a little, allowing for a bit more surprise. An indoor soccer pitch has no mud. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when DeLappe decides to make a mess.

The Wolves is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

Theater Review: On Wolves Who Kick