The nine teenage girls who are members of The Wolves soccer team in Sarah DeLappe’s impressive first professional play do occasionally gossip about one another, or whine about their substitute coach, or reveal their eating disorders, or mention a guy. But they also talk about, for example, the genocide in Cambodia, debating whether a leader of the Khmer Rouge should be punished now that he is so old and confined to a hospital. “ I just think it’s uh, it’s uh, ethically complicated,” one of them says.
Their conversations take place entirely during warm-ups before Saturday games over a period of six weeks in an AstroTurfed indoor soccer field somewhere in Middle America. Middle America becomes another subject of discussion:
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’re like we’re America you know.”
“Right, totally, like we’re not High America, we’re not Low America
we’re just like America America.”
“…Does that mean we’re hobbits?”
“The Wolves” is full of such entertaining throwaway exchanges like this, in a production by Playwrights Realm at the Duke that both shows off the playwright’s terrific ear for the way her adolescent characters speak, and respects her attempt to capture the texture of everyday life in a community of young women. DeLapp’s approach is distinctive enough that the script beat out some 2,000 other submissions to split the first annual Relentless Awards, created in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“The Wolves” recalls for me elements of Annie Baker’s 2010 play “Circle Mirror Transformation” , in which we slowly get to know the members of an adult drama class through casual conversations in-between theater exercises; and especially of the 1973 Broadway hit, “The Changing Room,” David Storey’s play about a rugby team in the North of England, in which the audience sees them only during their interactions in their locker room before or after a game. (It is not cynical to suggest that the actors’ frequent nudity in that play may have helped secure its popularity.)
The challenge for such a play is to keep the audience willing to stay attentive even during those moments when we’re not sure what’s going on – not sure, indeed, whether anything is going on at all. Director Lila Neugebauer goes a long way to maintaining our interest in “The Wolves,” working with the ten-member all-female cast (the tenth plays a soccer mom) to deliver authentic-feeling portrayals — and, not incidentally, keeping up the pace by putting the cast through vigorous physical exercise (reportedly based on actual soccer practice.)
But DeLapp could have done more to make the audience feel better acquainted with her characters, and less distant from the world of the play. The characters do each get quick-hit characterizations – the take-charge captain, the nervous blonde, the intense goalie – but they are not even given names; they refer to one another by the numbers on their jerseys. (Is this really what high school athletes do?) It would be difficult enough to focus on each of the nine characters, who are almost always together and freely engage in crosstalk. Eventually, one teammate emerges with a clear personality and a trackable character arc — number 46 (Tedra Millan), the newcomer to the team. One of the players, number 13 (Jenna Dioguardi) spreads a rumor that 46 lives in a “yogurt” with her mom. “I think you meant yurt,” 46 says, and she is being sardonic, but her teammates take her literally. If the play were entirely about #46, this would be one of those uplifting sports tales of triumph through adversity on and off the field. But most of the other characters seem to get as many lines and as much stage time as she does, and, if most have memorable moments, “The Wolves” can feel like unedited reality TV footage (without the reality characters’ standard clarifying monologue in front of the camera.)
Late in the 90-minute play, one of the teammates is killed in a car accident. I don’t consider this a spoiler; I consider this a helpful aid, since the playwright forces us to take an inordinate amount of time figuring out the basic facts of what happened, and it wasn’t even clear to me to whom it occurred until the actress reappeared at the curtain call. It didn’t help that the response of the teammates (with one exception) seemed oddly muted. Now, it’s possible that the playwright is offering insight into the nature of adolescence — that a group of teenagers are too resilient to alter course drastically because of a tragedy in their ranks. But if that is the intention, it didn’t completely work for me in practice.
If “The Wolves” requires an unusual degree of attentiveness, it offers something in exchange that has not been on a New York stage before — the work of Sarah DeLapp, 26 years old and still getting her M.F.A. from Brooklyn College, a promising new voice in the theater.
Playwrights Realm at The Duke
Written by Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Set design by Laura Jellinek
Costume design by Asta Hostetter
Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu
Sound design by Beth Lake and Stowe Nelson
Cast: Mia Barron, Brenna Coates, Jenna Dioguardi, Samia Finnerty, Midori Francis, Lizzy Jutila, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tedra Millan, Lauren Patten, Susannah Perkins.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $40 (students: $10)
The Wolves are set to run through September 24, 2016