Back The Night by Melinda Lopez
Boston Playwrights' Theatre
949 Commonwealth Avenue Boston, MA 02215
February 4- February 28, 2016
Reviewed after February 26 performance
Back The Night by playwright Melinda Lopez seemed like a good bet. As I listened to the play develop, it felt like playwright Melinda Lopez wanted to make a statement about sexual violence on college campuses and created characters to explore it. Not a bad idea, except when she crams so many themes into one 90-minute play.
The production values are simple and solid, as they usually are in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Rob Eastman-Mullins’ set with Misaki Nishimiya’s props suggest a college campus with cut out backgrounds of clock tower and dorms and multi purpose props to suggest everything from college admin offices to rally platforms and a dorm room. David Wilson’s lighting and music fit mood and action appropriately.
With a thoughtful refocusing of exposition, this could become a much more compelling production. As it stands, the play seems more like a treatise.
In the play’s opening scene, Cassie (Amanda Collins) shows up at Em’s dorm room, her face bloody, accompanied by a friend. She tells Em (Melissa Jesser) her best friend on campus, that she was attacked. The next 80 minutes explore what happened, how Em’s boyfriend, campus police, college administrators, and politicians react. It also tests the two women’s friendship.
College officials respond in ways similar to those we’ve seen on the 7 o’clock News…promise investigations, more security, and no tolerance for violence. It is far too convenient that Em’s mother happens to be a senator running for re-election and not above leveraging the event for political points when she shows up at a huge rally. And that Cassie has been blogging exposés about a fraternity with a reputation for degrading women. And that Em’s boyfriend happens to be a member of that fraternity.
Evan Horwitz adds a light touch as Sean, a very out iPhone wielding gay friend to both Em and Cassie. Socially tuned in and amusingly self-absorbed, it’s a hoot watching him make a pitch for the LGBT community when the TV crews show up. I couldn’t help thinking that this was Lopez’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cram another constituency into the drama.
Stephanie Clayman hits the mark in her stereotype roles as the campus doctor, the college dean, and the senator. Michael Underhill is solid as Em’s frat boy boyfriend who wants to do the right thing for his fraternity and his girlfriend. James Kooi ably fills minor roles as Officer Sam, a reporter, and the college president.
Things get cloudy when Lopez tries to tie up loose ends in the plays final minutes. Em has doubted Cassie’s version of events. Cassie’s denial is not categorical. Em acknowledges having had some kind of sexual encounter at an alcohol infused party at the fraternity house that Cassie has critically blogged about.
If I understood the dialogue clearly, Em acknowledges she was in the moment, letting loose a fraternity party, having fun with a good looking guy, may have been a little drunk, and things got out of hand and other young men may have been involved…the dialogue, spoken softly, was hard for me to decipher.
Placing this revelation earlier would have been a braver, and more difficult, way for Lopez to explore the often-discordant accounts of sexual assault or rape on college campuses. Perhaps play director Daniela Varon could have helped by having Em’s critical dialogue audible to the back row (third) of the small theater.
Some sexual assaults are clearly intentional, inexcusable, and demand condemnation and punishment. Others, like the one Em appeared to experience, call for a playwright to render a drama in which an audience has to grapple with situations in which consent was or was not violated. In that regard, Back The Night falls short.
Photograph credit: Kalman Zabarsky.