By Samuel L. Leiter
A “red herring,” says Wikipedia, “is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion.” In a sense, the first act of Dep Kirkland’s MsTrial, a dramatically shaky but topically pertinent new play at New World Stages, could be considered a good example. For about an hour, the audience is led to believe they’re viewing a legal procedural about a team of lawyers fighting to win a case on behalf of the family of a young girl killed—among many others—in a train wreck.
There are three legal eagles on the team: 1) the firm’s boss, John Paris (Kirkland, the playwright, not in his métier), middle-aged, charismatic, and quintessentially chauvinistic; 2) his gay nephew, Dan Burke (Alan Trinca, at his best in act two), good-looking, smart, ambitious, and somewhat naïve; and 3) the strikingly attractive Karen Lukoff (Christine Evangelista, needing more bite), a “stone-cold killer in a courtroom,” who’s “never lost a case,” although she’s presently losing her boyfriend.
As the action transpires in John’s office—designed by Bill Clarke and lit by Mitchell Fenton—with a large, leather couch at one side, we follow not only the team’s battle plans but the power games that the ruthless John enjoys playing with his partners’ psyches. His goal, it seems, is to strengthen them by first breaking them down. Each of John’s ploys, in fact, is a kind of red herring.
John’s also chiefly responsible for the sexual tension in the room, from his telling Dan what a “great ass” Karen has, to the various levels of borderline, or over-the-border, profanity-laden bantering and touching. Ultimately, as act one comes to an end, with the lawyers drunkenly celebrating the case’s outcome, these moments coalesce in a climactic scene that takes the play in a completely new direction. Red herring alert: act one has merely been a setup, designed to introduce the players and establish the situation that constitutes act two.
It’s difficult to discuss act two in any detail without spilling too many beans. Suffice it to say that, after a major scene shift to a hearing room, much of it concerns a deposition before a stenographer (Gayle Samuels, warmly understanding) and assistant district attorney (Janie Brookshire, smartly professional) in which Karen accuses John of rape and he, defended by Dan, fights back. We’ve seen the buildup to, but not the enactment of, what happened, so we have the advantage of considering whether Karen, at least initially, may not have been partly responsible. Regardless, the all-important question is: no matter how frisky the pre-penetration activity, when does “no” mean “stop”?
Kirkland, before turning to the theater, had a substantial career as an attorney, so it’s unlikely that his recreation of details regarding legal issues is too far off the mark. Still, even if it’s possible, as the play says, that no conflict of interest exists, it’s hard to watch John’s defense being handled by the suddenly shark-like Dan. This is a guy whose involvement in the sexual game-playing of act one (he even wagers with Karen about whether she could turn him on) makes him complicit from the get go.
There’s definitely meat to chew on, given the play’s #MeToo relevance. The vivid details we hear regarding the physical nature of a rape themselves have intrinsic interest. But there are niggling questions about plausibility, like the one about Dan’s defending John. One might also raise an eyebrow at the melodramatically contrived evidence exhibited at the deposition, at John’s out-of-character revelation toward the end, or even at Karen’s relative complacency to John’s toxic masculinity. If she’s such a “killer,” one wonders, wouldn’t she have dropped him in his tracks long ago? She seems, in fact, more a victim than a killer.
Director Rick Andosca moves the two-hour play along briskly enough but doesn’t always hit his marks. Notably vague are the moments of intimacy, such as a tickling scene or the equivocal moment when John and Karen are on the verge of their encounter. (These are, perhaps, the work of intimacy coach Judi Lewis Ockler.) And, as I’ve often noted, directors who rely on black-garbed, headphone-wearing, illusion-busting stagehands for lengthy scene shifts remind us of why curtains were invented.
MsTrial isn’t a total misfire but somewhere there’s a better play about the ambiguities of nonconsensual sex in the age of Weinstein, Epstein, and Trump. Let’s consider this one a mistrial and hope Kirkland returns to court with a stronger case next time.
MsTrial. Open run. Now playing at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.MsTrialNYC.com
Photos: Jeremy Daniel