How can young people grapple with sex and desire at a time when rape culture seems so prevalent — and a countervailing push for verbal consent seems either impractical or, well, mood-dampening? In Lilana Padilla’s brilliantly nuanced “How to Defend Yourself,” which opened Monday at New York Theatre Workshop, we meet seven college students struggling with these issues in the immediate aftermath of a violent frat-house rape that has landed a sorority girl in the hospital.
We never meet the rape victim, nor her attackers, but instead focus on five young women — and two frat boys — who meet for impromptu self-defense classes in an empty room at the campus gym. Sorority sisters Brandi (Talia Ryder, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” brimming with confidence) and Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez, “Manifest”) are the mismatched leaders of the group. Brandi’s a Tracy Flick-style Type A, masking her insecurities beneath an armor of confidence, while Kara projects a studied nonchalance and willingness to go along for the ride at just about any cost.
They’re joined by the brash, gun-obsessed Diana (Gabriela Ortega), the scared-of-her-own-shadow Nikki (Amaya Braganza), and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati), a shy Iranian American eager to shed both her cultural baggage and her virginity. Through sharp dialog laced with humor, Padilla creates a roomful of believable personalities who quickly break out of the initial impressions (stereotypes?) into which we might have tried to slot them.
She has a special gift for capturing the way people talk, and how college students deploy buzzwords (“man box,” “interrogate”) in ways that signal their standing as progressive fighters of the patriarchy and upholders of society’s new values — but that ring more hollow when they actually try to put those ideas into practice.
This is particularly evident with the arrival of two young men from the frat where the fateful attack occurred: Andy (Sebastian Delascasas, perfectly cast), a musclebound jock who’s trying — really trying — to be the kind of man most prized at this moment (“We do not get down with that rape s—. Full stop”), and Eggo (Jayson Lee), a more sensitive type who’s all too aware that his status as a Black man could make him more suspect if he misreads a woman’s intentions. (After being dumped by a woman who complained that sex with him was never a surprise, he laments, “What’s the difference between sex that is a SURPRISE and assault? Cuz I don’t want to be the surprise that winds up in jail.”)
Padilla, who also co-directs with Rachel Chavkin and Steph Paul (the latter also choreographed the movement in the athletic self-defense workout sections), creates some indelible scenes in a smooth, fleet-footed 100 minutes, and pries grounded, naturalistic performances out of her young cast. (My only quibble is about the ending, a rushed montage of flashbacks that seems more muddled than clear, especially since it follows a stronger curtain-dropping moment involving an epiphany for Brandi about the effectiveness of her approach to the subject.)
“How to Defend Yourself” boldly taps into foundational questions about the lack of clear direction for Gen Zers as they try to navigate their conflicting desire for intimate connection and self-preservation. Is establishing and re-establishing consent even practical when you’re in the moment and uncertain of your own limits? “Sometimes I don’t know what I want, you know?” Diana says at one point. “I’m at a 40% yes but if he’s at an 80 then I convert to 60 plus. Or I start at 30, get to a 50 and I’m like, yeah, that was fine.”
But in a world in which some men are not trying as hard as Andy and Eggo to respect women’s wishes, or to heed their clear refusal to go further, the burden falls back on women to draw the line — or to suffer the consequences when that line is ignored. Even Andy, who lost an attempt to rename his frat’s post-assault party “Workout Bros and Yoga Hos,” gloms onto how retraining men is central to any hope for change. “You’re learning to protect yourself from – from guys who look like me,” he tells Mojdeh late in the show. Women remain uniquely vulnerable, this play reminds us, especially if they fail to heed Padilla’s advice to speak up and use their voice.