With rights of every kind under assault in America, one can imagine welcoming a consoling glimpse at the age of feisty suffragettes. Bull in a China Shop, a new play by Bryna Turner and directed by Lee Sunday Evans at LCT3, could have provided that refreshing history lesson: It’s based on the decades-long correspondence between Mary Woolley and Jeanette Marks, early feminists, lesbians, and educational reformers at the turn of the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, Turner’s text doesn’t quite succeed in locating the dramatic potential in this epistolary romance. The play follows the couple over nearly forty years, beginning when Woolley (Enid Graham) is appointed president of a women’s college in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and asks her lover, Marks (Ruibo Qian), to join her there. Woolley plans on implementing radical curricular change, teaching young women to be freethinking intellectuals instead of well-behaved wives. Marks, a writer, hopes the Western Massachusetts woods will prove an inspiring retreat. Once at school, however, the pair find themselves under attack from both conservatives and progressives. Deans and trustees question Woolley’s forward-thinking policies, while faculty radicals, Marks included, find Woolley too slow to endorse women’s suffrage. Public pressure and private disagreements strain the romantic relationship, too.
Although Turner informs us that these women led surprising, exciting lives — Woolley travels to China in 1921 and serves as the only American female delegate to the 1932 World Disarmament Conference — we rarely glimpse these adventures. Instead, likely as a result of the text’s origins in written correspondence, we’re treated to lengthy monologues and repetitive dialogues parsing events that have already happened. A plot like this might still be theatrically compelling with a believable romance at its center, but onstage, it’s tough to buy the idea that Graham and Qian share more than a halfhearted interest in each other’s lives — or in tearing off each other’s frilly bloomers.
Throughout, Turner updates the play’s language, peppering it with curses and 21st-century teen lingo (or an adult’s shaky idea of the latter). A particularly presumptuous pupil (Michele Selene Ang) founds a secret student club dedicated to obsessively following the women’s relationship, and gushes to Marks about it in modern fangirl-speak. These textual embellishments, without an emotional core to build on, are little more than cute.
Woolley, on several occasions, compares her own public persona to the titular bull: smashing conventions and incurring collateral damage along the way. Watching Turner’s play, one might wish she’d taken a page from Woolley’s book and been a little bolder herself.
Bull in a China Shop
By Bryna Turner
Claire Tow Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through March 26