'Usual Girls': Theater Review

Usual Girls - Production Still 1 - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Uncomfortable but incisive.

Ming Peiffer's play world-premiering at Roundabout Theatre Company depicts the sexual awakening of a young Korean-American and her friends over the course of several years.

Burgeoning and blossoming female sexuality are very much on display in Ming Peiffer's play receiving its world premiere in this Roundabout Theatre Company production. This provocative work spans years in the life of a Korean-American girl growing up in a Midwestern suburb. We see her experiencing both the joys and sorrows attendant to developing from adolescence through puberty to full-on womanhood. And, at least as depicted in Usual Girls, the latter outweigh the former.

The play begins with Kyeoung (Midori Francis, The Wolves) and her friends Lindsay (Nicole Rodenburg) and Anna (Abby Corrigan) playing a game in their elementary school playground. Their childish, naive banter — which includes references to such things as thongs, "bathing suit area" and one of the girl's father's "special magazines" — is interrupted by their boorish schoolmate Rory (Raviv Ullman) who threatens to tell on them for cursing unless Lindsay kisses him. Kyeoung offers to kiss him in her friend's place, to which he replies that he doesn't want to get "chink cooties." In response, she tackles him to the ground.

It's but the first of many uncomfortable scenes in the play, which depicts the girls' sexual development in extremely graphic fashion. We see Kyeoung and Anna masturbating with stuffed animals, after which Kyeoung, echoing the language she's heard in movies, says, "I need a cigarette." Afterward, they practice French kissing and play a game called "Girlfriend," which involves Anna getting on top of Kyeoung and humping her.

Another scene shows Kyeoung and several of her friends comparing their bodily development in a nondescript basement. "You're, like, instantly cool now," one girl says to another who announces she's recently gotten her first period. The girls' pajama party ends badly when it gets interrupted by neighborhood boys exposing themselves.

The play doesn't fully succeed in its shifts from exaggerated comedy to scorching drama. An episode showing Kyeoung being picked up at school by her drunken, verbally abusive father (Karl Kenzler), who makes wildly inappropriate, sexually tinged comments to her schoolmates, is written and played way too broadly to be convincing. Another, in which she's seen shaving her pubic area for the first time ("I feel so adult, she comments, adding, "Do I look pretty now?") seems mostly designed for shock value with its full-frontal nudity. Too much of the time, especially in the scenes concerning the girls in the early years, the play has the feel of an X-rated Saturday Night Live sketch, more parodistic than illuminating. 

But the evening also features many powerfully resonant moments. That it touches a chord with audience members, especially women, was made evident by the emotional reactions frequently audible in the small theater.

Some of the most incisive sections feature a mature Asian-American woman (Jennifer Lim, Chinglish) delivering quiet monologues about such subjects as becoming sexually aroused by Disney's Aladdin as a young girl and losing her virginity to an older boy on a school playground when she was just 15 — she says she tells people it happened when she was 16, because "that extra year sounds a lot better." The older woman also figures importantly in a shattering climactic scene in which the playwright delivers a stylistic surprise.

The ensemble cast, many of whom are dealing with the difficult assignment of playing their characters at different ages, handle the challenging material with admirable skill. And while Tyne Rafaeli's staging isn't always as subtle as it could be, the director makes the play's themes come through loud and clear. Usual Girls is certainly not a comfortable evening in the theater, but it's never less than thought-provoking. 

Venue: Black Box Theatre, New York
Cast: Sofia Black-D'Elia, Abby Corrigan, Ali Rose Dachis, Midori Francis, Karl Kenzler, Jennifer Lim, Ryann Redmond, Nicole Rodenburg, Raviv Ullman
Playwright: Ming Peiffer
Director: Tyne Rafaeli
Set designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume designer: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Sound designer: Tei Blow
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company