There’s Nikki’s newfound courageousness, sparked by a few defense drills. Andy’s abstract theories on sex and, later, his stunned realization that he looks like, the kind of predator his peers are learning to defend against. Group conversations about what sexual autonomy looks like if what a woman finds most pleasurable is relinquishing her control; what control looks like; to what extent many young women and men define their relationship to sex by their relationship to shame.
Like the script, the direction occasionally taps into what makes these characters unique. A handful of perfectly timed, expertly revealing line reads can be heartbreaking, hilarious and vicious. “Can you lick my forearm?” Eggo asks during a consent exercise, with Lee, hilariously unpredictable, as the awkward sexual reject.
Ryder has a tough task with Brandi, trying to convey the vulnerability behind the character’s bravado and stilted dialogue, but she can also be downright scary when Brandi’s edge comes out. When Diana quips, that it’s just a class, Brandi retorts, too sharply: “Does that make you feel safe?” Among the standouts are Ortega as the wild Diana; Braganza, shrinking and ducking out of sight as Nikki; and Rodriquez, whose Kara is volatile yet wounded. But too often their characters are forced to fade away from the main action.
The show’s stylistic breaks from reality — brief interludes of choreographed fighting or dance, like one character’s beautifully articulated dance to Beyoncé’s “Formation” — also bring color and vitality to the play but could be woven through more consistently. (The exciting technicolor-style switches from sickly, stuttering fluorescents to raging club neons are by Stacey Derosier, and the bumping sound design, including a playlist of Rihanna and the Weeknd, by Mikhail Fiksel.)
“How to Defend Yourself” rushes through a random patchwork ending that allows the production to show off some fancy stagecraft but doesn’t provide a satisfying narrative conclusion.
Before their first class begins, Diana, in the midst of hyperbolic ramblings, says they’re in a “fiction of safety.” She could be talking about the United States, or the town they live in, or the college campus, or even North Gym Room 2, where they shadowbox hypothetical rapists and kidnappers. Either way, I’ve felt that “fiction of safety” too — sometimes when I elbowed and kneed mats in taekwondo, when I’ve aimed punches at my reflection in the boxing gym — that, despite my having a black belt and solid stable of jabs and crosses, there are still limits to the autonomy I have over my own body. So is safety really just a fiction?
And if so, how do you defend against a lie?
How to Defend Yourself
Through April 2 at the New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.