Prima Facie, Suzie Miller’s new play that just opened at the John Golden Theatre, hits you like a wrecking ball. It’s a one-woman show about an important issue buffeted by a series of technical flourishes, including throbbing lighting, music, and sound effects, in director Justin Martin’s production, but there’s one special effect that really matters here: the performance of star Jodie Comer.
Comer is Tessa Ensler (named after Eve Ensler, who now refers to herself as “V.”), a slick defense lawyer from humble origins in Liverpool. Her career has been marked by many cases in which she often acquits her clients from sexual assault claims. When she is the victim of assault, she experiences firsthand the way judicial process forces assault survivors endure a second form of victimization.
Miller’s show is very well-intentioned – upon exiting, audience members are handed leaflets with information for survivors. But in making sure we’re aligned with Tessa’s new understanding of what it is like to endure an assault and take the stand, Prima Facie misses a key objective implicit in its premise. Tessa never has to reconcile what she has done for years in her career as a public defender. She never questions how she repeatedly played a role in making dozens of other women feel the way she so painstakingly has articulated to us about the system’s treatment of victims.
I do hope that this stance does not present the wrong idea, that I am somehow a desensitized male critic. But just as a portrait of flawed characters is not an endorsement of bad behavior, the portrayal of a sensitive issue does not guarantee a vital show; it has to be more thoughtful. The show has to say something unique, something analytical, must provide a reason to exist in addition to a canon that already exists. Despite its creative assets – and a heroic, go-for-broke performance from Comer – Prima Facie sets itself up for a second half that it ultimately dodges.. It wants to destroy you, the audience – but this show also should have looked inward a bit more to try and say something truly profound.