The most significant thing about Sarah DeLappe’s first play is that it’s set among high school students on a girls’ soccer team and not in a glee club or a yearbook staff or a prom decorating committee. After a successful run last year at the Duke on 42nd Street, DeLappe’s “The Wolves” now performs at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where it opened Monday, with Lila Neugebauer again at the helm as director and most of the cast repeating their stellar performances.
DeLappe is young enough to have started playing soccer at the age of 8, but for a much older generation of Americans, the concept of school sports is almost purely male. I attended two high schools back in the late 1960s. One offered only girls’ basketball, the other offered no competitive sports whatsoever for women.
For those older theatergoers, which is just about everybody who goes to the theater in New York City, that pathetic sports history will inform every exhilarating, painful moment of revelation in “The Wolves.”
DeLappe is a wonderful chronicler of the present-day mindset of teenagers, especially young women who find themselves at a crucial intersection in life where intense competition and equally magnetic empathy are doing constant battle for the human soul.
Neugebauer takes DeLappe’s script to deliver one of the most arresting first scenes of a play in memory. Nine female members of the soccer team form a circle to do their stretches, all the while carrying on a dizzying, truly surreal conversation that’s the polar opposite of Stephen King’s girls’ locker room scene in his 1974 debut novel, “Carrie.”
Rather than being demonically lewd, DeLappe’s young women engaged in a matter-of-fact discussion about their periods, ranging from menstrual synchrony to a religious debate on Tampons versus pads; it’s a talk that also manages to touch on Harry Potter, the internet in China, their coach looking wasted behind sunglasses on Saturdays, and the Khmer Rouge.
That final topic is a bit of a shocker, since, as everyone over 30 knows, teenagers aren’t supposed to know or care anything about the world beyond their next text message. It’s a harsh slap to the Lincoln Center audience, and to its credit, “The Wolves” is youth-affirming to the extreme. (The play also shows that teenagers can put away their iPhones when they have something really important to do, like winning next week’s game.)
In that marvelous first scene, Neugebauer orchestrates the initial rapid-fire outbursts of conversation so that we pick up only snatches of words and miss at least half of what’s being said. At this point in the play, the teenagers themselves are also a bit of a blur — long hair is braided or rolled up for minimal interference with their sport; all the bodies are rendered nearly identical in black-and-white uniforms. Even the Playbill credits don’t give the characters’ names but rather the numerals on their respective trunks and tops.
Like their male counterparts in high school, these players are out to win, not seduce. They’re doers, not cheerleaders. There’s a reason they call themselves the Wolves and not the Gazelles.
If “The Wolves” is ever made into a movie, it will end with one of those fast-forward looks into the future, wherein a scroll gives us a sentence or two about what happens to each of the players a decade or two from now. Those bios would be a mistake.
The beauty of DeLappe’s writing is her ability to pinpoint that very moment in life when a number of 16- and 17-year-olds learn that life is unconscionably unfair but they’ll survive (or, at least, most of them will).
Offstage, a talent scout asks to see three of the girls after a game. It’s a devastating moment for those who aren’t called, not unlike the last scene in “A Chorus Line.” New to the game of soccer, #46 (Tedra Millan displaying a wonderfully quirky insouciance) is one of the players chosen to meet the scout.
So how do the other more experienced, dedicated players cope? Will they work harder? Give up and run for homecoming queen instead? Or sink into the premature bitterness that there’s nothing special about them? Those life-defining questions permeate “The Wolves,” but remain unresolved because the answers are locked away in a nebulous future.
Very right now is the character of #00, the goalie (Lizzy Jutila). After being chosen to meet with the talent scout, she runs offstage to the locker room, unlike #46 and #14 (Simia Finnerty) who confab with the other girls about what the scout told them, everyone’s empathy and competition spilling out all over the AstroTurf. Later, in almost total silence, #00 exercises relentlessly. Is this an outburst of self-improvement or torture or both? DeLappe knows that at this point in life everything is a fate unknowable.
Other actors in the cast are Paola Sanchez Abreu, Mia Barron, Brenna Coates, Jenna Dioguardi, Midori Francis, Sarah Mezzanotte, and Susannah Perkins, who manages to be especially luminous on a team of all-stars.