Prima Facie Broadway Review. Jodie Comer as a Rape Victim

Almost immediately after she is raped, Tessa Ensler starts imagining the questions a defense attorney would ask her, and the witnesses he would call, to get the rapist off. “Legal instinct tells me this is a losing case,” Tessa concludes. She has this instinct because, as a young, successful barrister herself, she has frequently pummeled sexual assault victims on the witness stand with just such questions on behalf of her own clients. 

Tessa presses charges anyway in  “Prima Facie,” a solo play opening tonight on Broadway. The best explanation for her decision is that the playwright, Suzie Miller, who was once a human rights lawyer in Australia, wants to show us that no woman – even an experienced trial lawyer – can get justice when it comes to sexual assault.  (It’s no coincidence that Miller gives her heroine the same last name as Eve Ensler, the feminist playwright of “The Vagina Monologues.”)  But if “Prima Facie” (a legal term meaning “on the face of it”) is a polemical play,  what unfolds on the stage of the Golden Theater is an effectively directed, sleekly designed production that is, above all, a golden vehicle for the actress Jodie Comer.

In her remarkable Broadway debut, Comer gives an emotionally raw and physically demanding performance that drives home the humiliation, betrayal, and feelings of helplessness that accompany sexual assault and its aftermath. Comer’s bruising portrayal of Tessa goes a long way towards persuading us to accept a set of circumstances that seem deliberately chosen to test our level of enlightenment about the issue.

When we first meet her, Tessa goes for the kill in the cross-examination of a witness with such cool relish that it might remind you of Comer’s best-known role, as the Russian-born international assassin Villanelle in the TV series “Killing Eve.”  From a working class family, Tessa thrived in the competitive atmosphere of Cambridge University Law School, and, now working as a defense attorney, she treats her job as a game that she’s good at — and one that she fully defends. What’s important, she explains, is “legal truth” rather than actual truth. In sexual assault cases, for example, the defense doesn’t have to prove that the alleged victim consented to the encounter, only that the alleged perpetrator “did not know there was no consent.” If Tessa has brief moments of doubt or a hint of guilt when she gets some clients off, she squelches them with the thought that “the prosecutor should have done a better job.”

Tessa is friendly with her colleagues in her chambers, including a fellow barrister named Julian, with whom she starts dating. It’s not until about halfway through the play that she invites Julian to her home, they drink too much, she goes to the bathroom to throw up, and he carries her back to her bed and assaults her.

It’s a harrowing scene, impressively staged, a step up in intensity from the low-key way Comer has portrayed the characters with whom Tessa interacts up to this point – mother, brother, judge, witness, classmate, colleagues, friend – half storytelling, half impersonation with no elaborate effort at mimicry but convincing nonetheless.

Until this moment, the set was a law office, with leather chairs, polished wood furniture, and bookcases floor to ceiling full of case files. Suddenly all of that disappears, and it begins to rain – pours, incessantly – and Comer stands under it, getting soaked – a deeply effective touch.

It is one of the most successful moments of stagecraft in “Prima Facie,” in which all the elements work in concert. At other moments, the elements seem to work in competition – the underscoring and amplified heartbeats during much of Comer’s speaking might undermine her clarity to some in the audience not accustomed to her English accent. The sudden flashing of lights can be distracting.

After 782 days, (a count that is projected one by one on the stage, which gives Comer the chance to get dry and change clothes, but also emphasizes how slow the wheels of justice), Tessa emerges as a changed woman, her swagger gone. As we flash back to scenes in the police station and in the hospital, before we are brought to the courtroom we learn that she has made basic mistakes from the get-go – taking a shower right after the rape, for example – and is now full of second-guessing and self-doubt.  

what if I’m overreacting? 
I’m not. I’m not.
But am I?
I know Julian
I’ve known him for years. 

Tessa’s transformation is meant to illustrate the crux of the playwright’s argument that women victims are not treated fairly in sexual assault cases — that the experience of rape is so traumatizing to women that they routinely forget peripheral details, which defense attorneys pounce on to prove that the victims are confused or lying. But it’s wrong for the justice system to expect such victims to give testimony “in a neat, consistent, scientific parcel.”  The playwright spells this argument out in a long speech that Tessa delivers at a climactic moment in “Prima Facie” (somewhat like the speech by Charlie Chaplin at the end of “The Great Dictator,’ and the monologue Michael R. Jackson just wrote for the end of “What Girl in Danger,’ in that it is so obviously an unmediated message from the writer.) Jodie Comer does the speech justice, but it is probably unnecessary, since her electric performance makes us feel the injustice.

Prima Facie
John Golden Theater through June 18, 2023. Update: Extended to July 2, 2023
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $31 – $299. Digital lottery: $10.
Written by Suzie Miller
Directed by Justin Martin
Original score by Rebecca Lucy Taylor (aka Self Esteem.) Set and costume design by Miriam Buether. Lighting design by Natasha Chivers. Sound design by Ben and Max Ringham. Video by William Williams for Treatment Studio. 
Cast: Jodie Comer

Photos by Helen Murray

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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