‘The Wolves’ explores the inner lives of a girls’ soccer team
The ensemble / Darrett Sanders

LOS ANGELES—Girls’ and women’s sports may still be underreported and undervalued, but it seems it’s a hot subject in the theatre right now. We recently reviewed an all-female cast in For the Love Of (Or, The Roller Derby Play); and now comes the L.A. premiere of Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Wolves in an Echo Theater Company production. It too has an all-woman cast, all but one members of a competitive soccer team at the junior high school level.

I’m generally not much interested in organized sports—live, on TV, in the theatre. But here’s what attracted me to the play—this paragraph from the publicist:

The Wolves is DeLappe’s first produced play. It premiered in 2016 at off-Broadway’s The Duke at 42nd Street as a Playwrights Realm production in association with New York Stage & Film and Vassar’s Powerhouse Theatre, where it enjoyed a sold-out run and transferred to Lincoln Center the following year. It was a co-winner of the American Playwriting Foundation’s inaugural Relentless Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the Yale Drama Series Prize. The Pulitzer committee describes it as ‘a timely play about a girls’ high school soccer team that illuminates with the unmistakable ping of reality the way young selves are formed when innate character clashes with external challenges.’ In his New York Times ‘Critic’s Pick’ review, theater critic Ben Brantley calls it ‘A thrilling debut play…theater that keeps you on the edge of your seat.’”

Wouldn’t you not want to miss such an event?

“When you’re 16 and 17, everything is such a big deal,” says director Alana Dietze. “This play is an emotional powerhouse because everything in these girls lives so close to the surface. That vulnerable state is compounded by the physical demands of the play for both actor and character—it’s visceral, dynamic and exciting to witness.”

According to the playwright, “I wanted to see a portrait of teenage girls as human beings—as complicated, nuanced, very idiosyncratic people who weren’t just girlfriends or sex objects or manic pixie dream girl, but who were athletes and daughters and students and scholars and people who were trying actively to figure out who they were in this changing world around them.”

DeLappe wants to draw us close in to this wolf pack of ferocious adolescent warriors (their team is called “The Wolves”), but before the proverbial curtain rises, a quick glance at the program doesn’t even provide the characters with names. Instead they are identified only by the number on their matching jerseys—and when they’re wearing something over their maroon and white uniform that obscures the number it’s a challenge remembering which character they are! (The costume designer is Elena Flores.)

There’s super-cool #7, the striker (Katherine Cronyn); anorexically thin, kind #2 (Minzi) and childlike #8 (Ellen Neary), both on defense; three midfielders: brainy #11 (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), stoner girl #13 (Jacqueline Besson) and #7’s insecure sidekick, #14 (Donna Zadeh). Goalie #00 (Makeda Declet) is an anxious perfectionist given to a nervous stomach, and the awkward new girl, #46 (Caitlin Zambito), who lives outside of town in a yurt with her mom and is just trying to fit in. Team captain, #25 (Connor Kelly-Eiding), does her best to keep the girls focused on the game, and Soccer Mom (Alison Martin), who makes only a single powerful appearance in the play toward the end, provides the orange slices.

Once in a while some of their given names are mentioned, but honestly, it’s hard to keep both numbers and names in your head amidst the fleet-footed, far-ranging, fragmentary dialogue that touches on just about everything girls of that age are thinking about. Personal differences, insults and jokes, correct language, resentments, accusations and tensions, friends and boyfriends, ethnicity, the Khmer Rouge and the Preamble to the Constitution, eating, hair, competition, menstruation, pregnancy and abortion, illness and zits, secrets, weather, college athletic scholarships, injuries, accidents, philanthropic fundraising for poor children—for starters—and in seemingly random, overlapping order.

And almost constantly, obsessively, addictively, they’re warming up for the game each Saturday with every manner of stretch, flexibility, agility and strength exercises. This is fierce, serious physical theatre, a 90-minute boot camp of gymnastic choreography tricked out with moving soccer balls. It’s easy to interpret this kind of extreme working out as an escape from some of life’s difficult challenges—acknowledging at the same time that hey, girls gotta play sports too.

Back row: Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, Ellen Neary, Katherine Cronyn, Minzi, Connor Kelly-Eiding, Caitlin Zambito; Front: Makeda Declet, Jacqueline Besson / Darrett Sanders

The entire action takes place on a large carpet of green astroturf that flows down from high up backstage to the front of the playing area (scenic design by Amanda Knehans). A single arc of white paint meant to delineate a section of the soccer field is the only departure from that field of grass. (They actually play on an indoor field at the City Sports Dome.) The action occurs “somewhere in suburban America” over a span of maybe several months, it’s a little hard to say, but things do happen over time.

There is a Great Purpose here somewhere, and no one can fault the actors for their extraordinarily energetic dedication to trying to make this work. I don’t envy the director, who had the complicated job of keeping the volatile pin-ball dialogue moving along coherently while soccer balls are being kicked around. The Wolves is not so much a play, but a slice of life, a collective atmosphere and environmental snapshot of girls’ sports. But almost all of that Great Purpose is overwhelmed by far too much hyperactivity both physical and verbal, sweat and busy-ness, and wasted time that fails to contribute to the drama.

The playwright’s reach has exceeded her grasp. I think there is the outline of an eventually effective play here (Pulitzer Prize nom and its apparent success in the Big Apple notwithstanding) but there would need to be a lot less dribbling and a lot more plot and character that’s about real, named characters, not numbers. I doubt any changes will be made to the script at this late date, however: It’s already an established work. I can appreciate the conceit as an intellectual effort, but right now the performance places heavy demands on a theatergoer without sufficient compensatory reward.

Speaking of numbers, I got to thinking, this is like a piece of pointillist art by Georges Seurat rendered in paint-by-number for amateurs at home and left half completed out of boredom.

Maybe DeLappe’s post-modern point is basically the physical and verbal exercise itself, but if so, then I guess I missed it. I just don’t get how that’s supposed to engage a theatre audience for an evening. However, I know that others in the audience, including some critics, appreciated the piece in ways that I did not. Could be that I’m just not that much into sports.

The Wolves plays Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, Sun. at 4 pm, and Mon. at 8 pm through April 22 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039. For reservations and information, call (310) 307-3753 or go to www.EchoTheaterCompany.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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