Nine young women circle up on a patch of blaringly green Astroturf. They wear matching jerseys, ponytails, and braids. They stretch. They chat. They joke about their periods, tease one another, wonder aloud about the state of the world. Watching them, we start to learn the rules of their small world: their rituals and rivalries, their taboos.
In Sarah DeLappe’s smart, delightful play The Wolves, produced by the Playwrights Realm and directed by Lila Neugebauer, a high school soccer team is the vehicle for exploring much bigger things: sexuality, collective identity, the violence that simmers beneath organized society.
The Wolves, who play wintertime indoor soccer, are sixteen and seventeen, eager to be signed by college recruiters and anxious about friendships, adulthood, and sex. Each scene consists of a series of warm-ups, preceding games that we, the audience, don’t see. (There’s the hint of a metaphor here: high school as a warm-up to what follows.) As they stretch and pass, their stories gradually unfold. No. 7 (Brenna Coates) wants her friend to spend the weekend with her and two boys. The friend, No. 14 (Samia Finnerty), feels pressured to have sex. Team members have had pregnancy scares, and struggled with eating disorders. The goalie (Lizzy Jutila), suffering from anxiety, throws up before every game. There’s a new girl, No. 46 (Tedra Millan), trying, and largely failing, to fit in.
It might sound, from this, like The Wolves is grim, or maudlin, or a march through after-school-special territory. It is none of those things. DeLappe’s dialogue is hilarious and idiosyncratic, moving swiftly from gross-out humor to pain. The choreography — graceful in-unison stretches and lunges, divorced from the urgency of an actual game — lends the scenes a beautiful rhythm, and the cast endows their characters with both lightness and depth. Laura Jellinek’s set, an Astroturf field whose far end curves up and out of sight, suggests a world both familiar and a little mysterious.
DeLappe shows us, with pointed humor, how team sports have always been an apt metaphor for our collective relationship to violence, channeling bloody urges into symbolic victories and defeats. Her players trot out truisms about Abu Ghraib, or the Khmer Rouge, then scold each other for getting the facts wrong. (“They don’t teach you about Cambodia at St. Albert?” “We don’t do genocides till senior year.”) Subtly, the play evokes the tension between safe, suburban America, and the faraway atrocities we ignore (or allow) in order to sustain our illusions of comfort. Other times, DeLappe lets us glimpse psychological darkness. In one memorable scene, the goalie, alone onstage, lies facedown on the field, furiously kicks some soccer balls, then — with no explanation and none needed — screams, loudly and at length.
Eventually, pain becomes personal, when the team loses one of its own. This is, perhaps, the least necessary part of the plot: Not because it turns a funny play sad, but because it makes the violence more literal than we need it to be.
Regardless, The Wolves is thrilling: for its confidence and generosity — and for its feminism. DeLappe reframes the social metaphor of team sports, simply by staging these women’s collective stories without squeamishness or self-pity. She offers us ninety minutes in a smart, sympathetic, female world. It’s a patch of Astroturf I would gladly set foot on again.
By Sarah DeLappe
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Through September 24