Gracie Gardner’s Athena is a fine new show in which sports play a big part. The topic is so common onstage these days that you could even say it’s just another such piece. Sports and theater: that old thing again? But that question, mind you, is a pretty new development. For decades, war brewed between the jocks and the drama club. Judging from movies, TV shows, and books, high-school anthropology was based on those two camps ignoring each other at best, or, at worst, meeting in the parking lot so football players or wrestlers could bully the kids who loved musicals. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why theater didn’t draw much from sports: Why would the Montagues write about the Capulets? The exceptions were thus glaring, and included Damn Yankees in 1955, That Championship Season in 1972, and Take Me Out in 2004. Hits were few and far between.
In the past few years, however, theater has paid increased attention to athletic endeavors. It’s turned out to be a natural pairing: Both fields heavily rely on awareness of the body, heightened social interactions, and drama-infused storytelling. This change has partly been set off by an increased number of female playwrights for whom the intersection of sports, body issues, and socialization has particular resonance. The most successful example, both artistically and commercially, has been Sarah DeLappe’s 2017 Pulitzer finalist The Wolves, which tracks a girls soccer team over the course of several practice sessions. (It had three sold-out runs in New York City alone.)
Indeed, aside from Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo (about doping in swimming), the best of these recent sports-centric shows have been by and about women. Recall, for instance, Julia Brownell’s All-American (in which a girl no longer wants to be her school’s quarterback) and, especially, Ruby Rae Spiegel’s devastating Dry Land (about teenagers on a swim team). The guys have been the beneficiaries of the bigger stages: Broadway has hosted a musical version of Rocky as well as Eric Simonson’s hagiographic trilogy of manly feats and feels (Lombardi, Magic/Bird, Bronx Bombers), each one of which felt as if it had been hatched by marketing companies gunning for that elusive straight-male audience. But women have more than made do Off- and Off-Off.
Yet another case in point: The wily and entertaining Athena, a production of the Hearth company, now at the funky Brooklyn venue Jack. Directed by Emma Miller, Athena centers on two seventeen-year-old fencers. The one identified in the title (Julia Greer) first beats Mary Wallace (Abby Awe) in a bout — Emmie Finckel’s set consists of a fencing strip, with the actors in fencing gear the entire time — then immediately asks her to be her training partner. There’s no denying the insistent girl, who even balks at revealing her real name. Athena, it turns out, is her fencing moniker. “I like having a mythical context!” she says.
The teens get to know each other, and us them, by chatting while they stretch, warm-up, and perform drills. This set-up eerily recalls the one in The Wolves, a superior work in which the girls stretch, warm-up, and perform drills. Athena and Mary Wallace are obviously obsessed with their sport, and they are not there just to participate. “I love knowing for a moment that I’m objectively better than someone else,” Athena elaborates. Like so many kids of the stage and screen, the two are precocious, preternaturally funny, and hyper-articulate. But the intense, quirky Athena complicates this combination with an underlying emotional opaqueness. Greer often gives her an impassive mask, making it unclear whether Athena can’t express her feelings and is hiding behind her sharp tongue, or if she is supremely manipulative. This ambiguity is one of the play’s finer touches. At one point, she brusquely declares, “We’re getting along really well.” Nonplussed, Mary Wallace asks, “Who says that?” Athena insists: “We’re like, speeding right along at a nice clip.” The way the last line is delivered, you can’t quite tell if Athena is taunting her friend or being awkwardly sincere.
Undermining this dry humor, though, is Gardner’s difficulty in filling in the girls’ outlines and differentiating their voices. At least when the inevitable showdown comes — the pair face each other at qualifiers, as they must — Gardner adds an interesting twist that makes you reconsider Athena’s motives, her entire personality, even. It’s almost enough to make you wish for a follow-up, with the winner at Nationals and the other contemplating the aftermath of her loss.