Tessa Ensler is alone in Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie. That’s both our first impression of this English barrister as she breathlessly communicates her obvious pride in cleverly defending rapists against the accusations of the women they’ve violated, and our last one, which is formed in the aftermath of Tessa’s own sexual assault and brutal mistreatment on the witness stand. There are other characters in the play, but they’re all filtered through Tessa’s consciousness over a harrowing 100-minute monologue that leaves the audience feeling as uncertain about the possibilities of human connection and empathy as Tessa ultimately does in her final despair.
The mesmerizing Jodie Comer, making her Broadway debut in the Olivier Award-winning best new play after starring in the genre-subverting BBC show Killing Eve, portrays Tessa (for which Comer also won an Olivier in her West End bow) with stunning fidelity to the pain she causes and endures. While the tension between these two aspects of Tessa’s personal history eventually ignite a fervent reassessment of who she has been, who she is now, and who she should be, Comer never gets ahead of herself in the performance. Early on, as Tessa recounts, in predatory terms, conducting a cross-examination that frees a rapist, Comer convinces us, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Tessa not only perceives practicing law as a “game” but also is emotionless about the outcome, no matter the consequences for others. At this point, in hearing Tessa trumpet her job so blithely, the horror is ours alone, because, for Tessa, everything she’s saying is just another day at the office.
Tessa’s attitude doesn’t come from any natural insensitivity; it has to be learned. A Liverpool-to-London transplant, she’s a striver who transformed hard work into an education and social role her family and strangers considered “important.” But, as Miller’s relentlessly forthright script makes clear, upward mobility and compassion rarely go hand-in-hand, so Tessa buried the latter in rationalizations to serve the former. The enormity of what she’s done–sacrificing her own humanity for a patriarchal legal system hostile to women–only begins to hit home after a night of frivolous joys suddenly takes a horrific turn in the arms of someone Tessa thought she could trust.
This depressingly pervasive trauma–as noted near the play’s conclusion, “one in every three women are sexually assaulted”–sets Tessa adrift in a criminal process that, as she is well aware, doesn’t exist to restore her sense of dignity or security. As for justice, Tessa’s experiences as a complainant lead to a forlorn, but vocal, epiphany that the law, at its misogynistic heart, is a “male-defined system of truth” not intended to grant her even that most basic comfort either. If anything, it’s fundamentally designed to take from sexual assault victims: their time; their friends; and, if they make it to a courtroom, any prevailing sense of confidence that what happened was wrong.
Tessa’s epiphany occurs on the witness stand as part of an impassioned lawyerly summation of her own case–and, implicitly, those of so many other forgotten women. While fending off repeated objections from defense counsel and admonishments from the judge, Tessa delivers her remarks with the house lights up, as a Brechtian break that abruptly abandons the psychological distance of a darkened theater to bluntly call for change. Given Comer’s thoroughly absorbing acting, it’s a much-needed corrective for anyone who doesn’t understand that the playwright, a lawyer herself, isn’t seeking to enthrall but, instead, to plead.
Still, despite the unambiguous necessity of Miller’s argument, I did have a misgiving about the way it was handled. After Tessa cites the one-in-three statistic about sexual assault, she tells us, as if we were sitting in the court gallery, to look to our left and right, as an opportunity to put faces to the numbers. I didn’t do that, because, the play’s trigger warning notwithstanding, it felt wrong to potentially catch sight of someone’s suffering who hadn’t agreed to share it with me.
There are additional instances when audience attention is pulled from Comer’s performance during Prima Facie, but these interruptions aren’t deliberate; they’re simply examples of immoderate staging meant to assertively signal director Justin Martin’s involvement in the play, too. Martin’s most irritating theatricality takes the form of a torrential rain effect apparently unleashed to realistically enhance or emotionally underline the turbulent moments immediately following Tessa’s rape. But it ends up only being a distraction, compelling the audience to start thinking about indoor drainage systems instead of focusing on Miller’s words as Comer agonizingly utters and embodies them.
Other ill-advised attempts to augment Comer’s performance range from the slightly less vexingly insistent to the merely superfluous. While Martin should have spared Comer the added responsibility of frequently rearranging the furniture on Miriam Buether’s legal-themed set, it’s Ben and Max Ringham’s manipulative sound design that definitely deserves tuning out as it continually offers tonal guidance the audience doesn’t require thanks to Comer’s brilliance. Sometimes all an actor needs is an audience and vice versa.
Prima Facie (through July 2, 2023)
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.primafacieplay.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission