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Off Broadway Review: ‘The Wolves’

Variety logo Variety 12/10/2016 Frank Rizzo
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The opening scene of Sarah DeLappe’s exhilarating play “The Wolves,” which depicts the tough, tender and complicated lives of nine members of a girl’s high school indoor soccer team, is a wall of overlapping jabber. As the team warms up for their game, they chatter about sex, menstrual periods, the Khmer Rouge, their parents, snake-handling, the b-word and other matters both profound (to them) and silly (to us).

It’s also a warm-up for the audience. As directed with naturalistic virtuosity by Lila Neugebauer, these random adolescent howls makes the girls all of one pack, yet also specifically themselves. In addition, it captures the don’t-take-anything-for-granted approach by Delappe, who creates a heightened sense of audience attentiveness in order to find in these young women glimpses of pain, hope and sorrow in the smallest of gestures and the slightest of words. (After a well-received run earlier this year, the play is back for a return engagement Off Broadway by special arrangement with Scott Rudin.)

DeLappe’s brilliance is that she reveals her players as they gossip, taunt, comfort and conspire not as archetypes — the smart one, the slutty one, the loner, the loudmouth, the nerd, the new kid — but as young women on the cusp of becoming their own self-defined characters, with the possibility to change, challenge and grow.

It’s an astonishing opening scene played on a turf of green just off to the side of their field of dreams. (The boys’ team has a more privileged status, a point not lost on the girls.) Laura Jellinek created the efficient stretch of the verdant set, lit with dramatic effectiveness by Lap Chi Chu.

But as the players dash off and return again and again in various configurations — and as their team edges towards nationals — the specificity of the pack emerges in unexpected ways. The intimate and fleeting details of developments in the characters’ lives are so compelling that when a major dramatic occurrence happens late in the play, it’s like a jolt from another far-afield world, one that eventually bonds the team in yet another way.

In this heady rush of adolescent energy, ideas and emotion, the ensemble work is astonishing. The performers in this Playwrights Realm production have been sharpening their rhythms since early fall in this extended run, and the result is acting teamwork of the highest order.

Particularly memorable are Brenna Coates as a sidelined star; Lauren Patten as the team captain who deals with responsibility and guilt; Sarah Mezzanotte as the littlest player out to prove herself and Tedra Millan as the new player who shakes up the team. But all the performers deserve to share a trophy.

Besides nailing the nuances of their characters, the cast also demonstrates admirable skill with the soccer ball, and one athlete (Lizzy Jutila as the almost-silent goalie) expresses her rage in a stunning scene of raw physicality.

The final scene is a haunting echo of the first, where silence, not chatter, is what fills the air. By that time that’s more than enough to understand these fragile and fierce young women.

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