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Enter at Your Own Risk: “Teeth” reviewed

There’s something about Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis), the teenage heroine at the (bleeding) heart of Teeth, currently running at Playwrights Horizons in an irreverent production helmed by Sarah Benson. As those who remember the show’s source material, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s sorta-underground, not-quite cult film from 2007, as stepdaughter of Pastor (Steven Pasquale), she is the leader of the Promise Keeper Girls, the teen youth group in the Eden-like New Testament Village. These students have been raised to drown out their inner longing and prize their purity above all else.

But life gets in the way: Both Dawn and her boyfriend, Tobey (Jason Gotay), find it getting harder and harder to resist temptation. (Their early duet is called “Modest is Hottest.”) Meanwhile, she has a fraught relationship with her stepbrother, Brad (Will Connolly); the higher a pedestal on which the pastor puts Dawn, the more abusive his treatment gets. (There are no adult women in their lives – Brad’s mother abandoned them, and Dawn’s mother has died.) While Dawn and Tobey struggle against their raging hormones, Brad searches the dark web and finds a spiritual leader, a men’s life coach called Godfather (one of several characters portrayed and/or voiced by Pasquale) who blames “male pain” on “the feminocracy” and dubs his premium subscribers “Truthseekers.”

After nearly an hour of sublimated lust and rage, (“Thanks for Jesus!” the Promise Keeper Girls sing. “His blood is like pure honey on my lips!/The gift he gave us! The gift he gave us!/Stays locked up tight in a box at the meeting of my hips”), audiences reach the moment they have been waiting for (mild spoiler alert): Dawn and Tobey give into their physical desires, but Tobey crosses the line, and with deadly consequences. Dawn’s heretofore unnoticed vagina dentata emerges, castrating and killing her boyfriend.

Confused and frightened (Louis’ expert performance covers everything from deft physical comedy to body horror with righteous anger), Dawn is failed by men at every turn – even her gynecologist (also Pasquale, seen in a number that is one of many knowing homages to Little Shop of Horrors). And so things escalate. When the world keeps kicking you, it seems, the only thing to do is bite back.

Teeth, with music by Anna K. Jacobs, lyrics by Michael R. Jackson (who soared with A Strange Loop and stalled with White Girl in Danger) and a book (seemingly worked on at separated times, based on their credits) by both, posits a binary world where all men are violent threats leaving women with no choice to retaliate. And in many ways, they have smartened up Lichtenstein’s screenplay to make the material more trenchant and to encompass larger themes, which include further defining the character of Brad, now seen as more of a victim of the toxic Pastor, and turning Dawn’s ally Ryan (an excellent Jared Loftin) into a gay friend struggling with his own tsuris.

While they have clarified the male characters in Teeth, however, they have made the distaff characters – including our lead – more nebulous in favor of creating a general state of chaos. The first half of Teeth is tighter, but redundant (how many times can you sing about pledging your obedience to the lord?); the second half, however, is a warped feeding frenzy that is equal parts shameless and shapeless. (It’s also where prop designer Benson has committed to this kind of anomie before, but with better results (see: Blasted). As Adam Rigg’s paneled rec room set – including a catwalk level that doesn’t really serve a purpose and suffers from poor sightlines – implodes, and Jane Cox and Stacey Derosier’s lighting gets richer in intensity, something in Dawn crosses over. She and the Promise Keeper girls abandon their humanity in favor of  becoming vicious beasts raging against an army of zombified men (and do so in number choreographed to the hilt by Raja Feather Kelly), swallowed by a primitive anger that has no basis in realism but that buckles against the expectation in a musical.

There’s so much fun to be had here, and the creative team, including prop designer Matt Carlin and sound designer Palmer Hefferan, has a field day. But as Teeth becomes Thunderdome, the visuals take precedent over the proceedings. The female characters blend together interchangeably, and only the men get the prize numbers. Any sense of empowerment or individuality gets lost.

And as we lose the thread, we lose the metaphor. Any notion of empowerment and any thought about resilience gets tossed aside. What resources are available to women who haven’t been taught about what their bodies are capable of? Who haven’t been given a language for sexual assault? Teeth weaponizes this concept instead of providing any useful tools.

Vicious but never visceral, Teeth is a show that begins as a question mark ends with an exclamation point. But I’m not sure it has provided any true content to precede them – only a bloody mess.

Playwrights Horizons