theater review

Theater Review: The Indignities and Glories of Female Adolescence, in Usual Girls

From Usual Girls, at the Roundabout’s Steinberg Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

“I realized that I knew more about male anatomy, milestones, and experiences than I did about my own,” the playwright Ming Peiffer said in a recent interview. “I knew what a wet dream was before I knew what discharge was. I had seen locker-room scenes where boys hilariously talk about boners, but I was ashamed and frightened by my own menstruation … Why is there an embarrassment there? Why is male sexuality … celebrated and normalized whereas female sexuality continues to make people deeply uncomfortable? I really wanted to write something that showed the complexity [and the] darker sides, but also the beauty, fun, and wonder of growing up female. And more importantly, the normalcy of these things.”

It’s one thing to be able to articulate your artistic goals and another to pretty much nail them. But that’s what Peiffer, along with director Tyne Rafaeli, has done with Usual Girls, a visceral growing-up play that moves from rambunctious to somber without apologizing for either extreme, its nuttiness or its anger. The play is a collection of explosive formative moments in the life of an Asian-American girl named Kyeoung, coming of age in Upper Arlington, Ohio, in the ’80s and ’90s and parting ways with us as an adult woman navigating New York City in 2018. Peiffer herself grew up in Columbus, and her heroine’s story is suffused with the kind of raw, wacky, eccentric detail that can only be intensely personal. Like Miranda Rose Hall in Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, Peiffer is tracing the awakening of a young body to desire and a young mind to the terrifying maze of pressures and prejudices, binaries and boxes, that lie in wait for that body and its developing soul. And as with Clare Barron’s Dance Nation or Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, or even Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, Peiffer’s play explores female sexuality without attaching it to a love story. It’s a gutsy, vulnerable piece of writing and part of what feels like an immensely heartening wave of intelligent, compassionate, unafraid-to-get-ugly plays that give us vital new portraits of the artists — as young women.

We first meet Kyeoung (the wonderful Midori Francis, who also kicked butt, and balls, in The Wolves) as the new kid in elementary school, playing “Lava Monster” with two other girls at recess. Lindsay (Nicole Rodenburg) is the obvious alpha, the one whose tense stare and dissatisfied pout already bespeak teenage insecurity, an awareness of the hazy world of “cool” and “uncool” that lies up ahead. Anna is the weird one — a flurry of naïveté and unrecognized physical urges, and Abby Corrigan is both marvelously strange and familiar as she pops her eyes, sucks her lip, and twists her skirt maniacally, her hungry fingers crawling over the top of her tights as she recounts her mother screaming, “ANNA! Get your hands out of your panties! You’re a lady and that’s not what lady fingers do!” Corrigan is also downright wrenching later in the play, when Anna and Kyeoung run into each other as college kids, dolled up and coked up in a New York bar, as the lost, spiraling Anna looks for “a finance bro to suck my lady lumps.”

Sex hovers all around these girls, and not just as an unarticulated impulse. It’s in the Victoria’s Secret catalogues Anna’s family gets in the mail, and that her father takes to the bathroom with him. It’s in the “special magazines” that Kyeoung’s alcoholic father (Karl Kenzler) keeps in a Kroger bag under the sink in his bathroom. It’s in the biology books in the school library and in the way the boys try to look up the girls’ shorts when they’re on the monkey bars. It’s in the games Kyeoung and Anna play with their stuffed animals, which are simultaneously X-rated and innocent. It’s in the treacherous demand made on the playground by one of the boys, Rory (Raviv Ullman), that Lindsay kiss him — or else he’ll tell the teacher that he heard the girls using the “F-word.” Kyeoung tries to take the disgusted Lindsay’s place, but Rory recoils: He doesn’t want “chink cooties.”

In her play’s first scene, Peiffer brings all the ideas that her play will examine to the blacktop and throws them down in a high-stakes children’s game. There’s the casual racism Kyeoung will experience day in and day out, and the ways in which these insidious, offhand cruelties are learned (“Kyeoung’s [vagina] is sideways!” crows Rory, as Lindsay and Anna stare inquisitively at their friend. “My dad said … he saw you and your mom after the choir concert and said you all have them”). There’s the friction between girls uncertain of how to unlink self-definition from competition. There’s the feral silliness of childhood, the hunger for experience and the fear of some undefined danger. There’s curiosity and bravery and shame, and there’s the fact that Rory’s presence and his stupid playground blackmail are somehow much more frightening than they should be. Though Kyeoung ends up roaring in frustration and body-slamming him before Lindsay can surrender to his demands, her victory is laced with something chilly: This might be the last time, at least for many years to come, that she’s able to stand up to a boy’s ugliness — or his sense of entitlement, or his attempts at dominance, or her own social grooming as polite and compliant — and win.

Rafaeli turns Usual Girls into a series of neon flashes: Jen Schriever’s rock-concert lights flare and then smash to black after every scene as Tei Blow brings a succession of remixed, amped-up pop songs blaring through the speakers. The first third of the play surges with the semi-violent energy of being young — it’s a land of all capital letters, huge swells of emotion, breathless clandestine experimentation, and sleepovers where the girls flash their “bathing-suit areas” at each other, staring in awe at Sasha, the only girl whose pubes have come in. “I got my period last week too,” Sasha (Sofia Black-D’Elia) moans wretchedly, “And like, I get it if you guys don’t wanna be friends anymore.” It’s funny and it’s awful — who told this poor child that menstruating was shameful? Probably no one, in so many words, yet it’s what we absorb all the same.

When, at this same sleepover, a group of leering, hooded boys shows up outside the sliding glass doors of the basement where the girls are holding court in their Limited Too pajamas, a preteen bacchanal breaks out. Boobs are flashed, butts and dicks are smashed up against windows, pillows are flying, and everyone’s screaming — and it’s all wildly hilarious, until, gradually, it isn’t. Peiffer puts gleeful silliness and deep menace side by side, marking a moment of scary maturation for Kyeoung and her friends and using this turning point in her play to introduce a new figure: the “Woman” (Jennifer Lim). The Woman speaks directly to us — she’s centered and self-assured, sometimes affectionately incredulous and sometimes full of empathetic pain as she recalls her younger self. Which is, of course, Kyeoung.

Peiffer’s script calls for the Woman to walk directly into “the detritus” of the Dionysian sleepover, with “the girls … still frozen” around her as she addresses us for the first time. Rafaeli opts to clear the stage for her instead, and I wish that she hadn’t. In this Usual Girls, the Woman’s first monologue feels, well, like a monologue — separated off from the flow of action in that not-particularly-exciting “Now we’re breaking the fourth wall” way. I wondered what it would have been like to see her appear during the frenzies of the sleepover, even as the women inside all of these girls are starting to appear — to see her observe the scene before stepping out of it. Peiffer suggests this kind of overlap, and I find the idea of it more enigmatic and more powerful than the actual climax of this crucial turning-point scene, which ultimately has the boys enter the basement in a dark, distended moment of unreality. They manhandle and abuse the “hypnotized girls” — so says the script — performing “any sexual act they can think of short of ‘forcibly raping’” them. Here, Peiffer and Rafaeli’s eerie, ecstatic dream-ballet took one too many steps into the literal for me. I was much more terrified by the shadowy image of the boys pressed up against the door, the girls breathing in exhausted, expectant unison on the other side of a single thin pane of glass. That stillness held everything already: wonder, yearning, and violence side by side.

But, as Kyeoung continues to grow up, Peiffer more effectively integrates the Woman into scenes that are in fact echoes of her own past. “What are you doing?” the Woman asks Kyeoung, as the girl enters her bathroom wide-eyed and soft-footed, a razor in hand. “Shaving my vagina for the first time,” Kyeoung replies, as if in a dream, and though Lim’s answering, “Oh, wow,” draws a laugh, the ensuing scene is almost unbearably tender. Lim sits in front of the remarkably brave Francis — who must strip down in more ways than one in the play — and she helps her younger self shave. It’s a beautiful theatrical gesture: How do we make it through the weird, intimidating milestones of our lives? Perhaps because somewhere inside us is an older self — less energetic, more wounded perhaps, but reaching out a hand to say, “I’m on the other side. Come find me. You’re going to be okay.”

That’s exactly what the Woman says to Kyeoung near the play’s end, when the young woman, now a college graduate, experiences a trauma that so many women endure, and that almost as many will leave unreported. “Nothing HAPPENED okay nothing happened,” insists Kyeoung, livid and empty-eyed, but the Woman knows better. “The moment the water hit my body was the moment he got away with it,” she remembers.

It might seem like the arc of Usual Girls is a long dive from uproarious possibility into disenchantment and pain, and in a way it is, but that’s not the whole of it. The play is both spiky and joyous, and Kyeoung’s story is no tragedy, no maudlin serving of misery porn. The presence of the Woman — and indeed, Francis’s own undaunted performance as the youthful, growing Kyeoung — results in a portrait that puts the ugly and the wondrous together in the frame. It doesn’t try to send us away with a pretty, hopeful gift basket; nor does it revel in its heroine’s suffering. It remains clear-eyed and forceful, and it shines a neon light on how much of growing up, for usual girls, is a process of unlearning.

Usual Girls is at the Roundabout’s Steinberg Center through December 16.

The Indignity and Glory of Female Adolescence in Usual Girls