Fourteen months after its Playwrights Realm premiere, Sarah DeLappe's amazing debut play The Wolves has moved uptown to Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. During the yearlong break between off-Broadway engagements, this scrappy piece about an all-female high school soccer team has received some fancy accolades: DeLappe earned the moniker "Pulitzer finalist" in April, while the ensemble cast and director Lila Neugebauer received Obie and Drama Desk Awards for their work.
The Wolves follows a group of contemporary teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and how these young women deal with the tremendous and tiny obstacles that life kicks their way. For a majority of the show, DeLappe's nine headstrong characters don't even have names. Known mostly by the numbers on their jerseys, they cultivate distinct personalities nonetheless.
The team captain, #25 (Paola Sanchez Abreu, the only newcomer to this cast, who fits in with perfection), motivates and leads the team during practices and pregame warm-ups, while off the field she discovers her sexuality. The striker, #7 (Brenna Coates, wonderfully abrasive), has a hardened exterior and a foul mouth. The goalie, #00 (Lizzy Jutila), is a typical overachiever with such fierce nerves that she never speaks and constantly excuses herself to vomit before each game. On an empty stretch of AstroTurf somewhere in America, the players warm up and blithely discuss topics ranging from the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia to feminine hygiene products, while slowly starting to realize that they're not kids anymore.
Neugebauer directs and choreographs the play with mesmerizing syncopation. Much of DeLappe's script is delivered in overlapping sections of dialogue, yet no crucial piece of information ever gets lost. The text is so real that it's almost as if DeLappe transcribed real conversations between teenage girls; the performances are so authentic that it almost feels like we're eavesdropping on these ritualistic moments of young adulthood.
For this engagement, Neugebauer and her excellent company have managed to clarify the material even further. Roles originally played for laughs — like #46, Tedra Millan's talented but oddball new girl, and #8, the resident optimist portrayed by Midori Francis — have gone deeper. Millan's quirky, comic weirdness has taken on a more socially awkward quality, while Francis has shed much of the character's naïveté and now beautifully wears her inner wounds on her sleeve.
Similarly, Neugebauer and actor Sarah Mezzanotte have bluntly elucidated the psychological demons facing #2 that were once only alluded to, and it intensifies Mezzanotte's performance exponentially. Jutila still astounds with a wordless physical training monologue as she pushes herself to her personal limits. Susannah Perkins, Jenna Dioguardi, and Samia Finnerty complete this terrific ensemble of players, with Mia Barron making the most of a brief monologue as one of their moms.
Just as importantly, The Wolves looks great in its new, larger home. Laura Jellinek's synthetic green set is recognizable to anyone who went through high school gym class, while Ásta Bennie Hostetter's soccer uniform costumes are now a much more distinguishable black instead of the emerald-colored originals that blended in with the AstroTurf. Lap Chi Chu's lighting and Stowe Nelson's sound evoke the feeling of being in a massive sporting arena, complete with floodlights in an oval ring above the seating area, the deafening noises of game time, and the murmur of surrounding teams during practice times.
In the year since its premiere, The Wolves has gotten darker in both its tone and its exploration of the teenage experience. The team has also gotten braver, capturing the first major transitional period in the lives of these young women with an even greater emotional acuity than it did before. As a result, Neugebauer's production is more affecting than it was at the Duke on 42nd Street, where it felt like the comedic elements were emphasized. In the process, it further confirms what we realized in 2016: The Wolves is one of the best plays of the decade.
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