In both civil and criminal law, the Latin words prima facie, translated as “at first sight” or “based on first impression,” denotes that, upon initial examination, a legal claim has met the burden of proof with sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. It’s a term Tessa Ensler, a successful London barrister who rose from working-class roots to become a winning defense lawyer, knows well. But when she becomes a victim of the crime she specializes in defending (by casting reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors deciding cases of sexual assault), her faith in the patriarchal criminal justice system and belief in fighting for the acquittal of defendants, whose probable guilt she ignores, are challenged, and she is forced to confront her own personal morals, professional ethics, and the stratagem of burden of proof in the American premiere of Suzie Miller’s Olivier Award-winning play Prima Facie, now playing a strictly limited ten-week engagement at Broadway’s Golden Theater.
Jodie Comer (Emmy-winning star of TV’s Killing Eve), under the razor-sharp direction of Justin Martin, gives a nonpareil tour-de-force solo performance in her Broadway debut as Tessa, who recounts her experiences in a whirlwind of direct address to the audience and transporting re-enactments of the key points in her journey, while fully embodying the shifting emotions, justifying her dramatic change in attitude, and making an urgent plea for our awareness and action. The hot-button topic comes with a warning: this play addresses sensitive subject matter, including references to sex, violence, and sexual assault, which can cause distress or trigger challenging emotions for some theater-goers.
The rapid-fire non-stop monologue takes us from Tessa’s impassioned and boastful account of outsmarting a prosecution witness for another win in the game of law, to recollections of her cut-throat years in law school with elitist students who looked down on her, visits with her less fortunate family, and nights of heavy drinking and partying with her colleagues, leading to a flirtation with Julian, late-night sex on the office sofa, and a subsequent date, with lots more drinking, that results in her vomiting, then being carried from the bathroom into her bedroom, where he painfully rapes her – a charge he vehemently denies and fights in court (as having been just another night of drunken consensual sex).
For Tessa, it’s an eye-opening experience that causes a complete change of heart (calling to mind former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo’s observation that “a liberal is just a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet” – here a female defense attorney for rapists is a feminist who hasn’t been sexually assaulted yet), as she finds herself in the same situation as the women she so proudly discredited in court, and experiences the devastation, confusion, debasement, and loss of dignity, joy, and sense of self through the long and now excruciating legal process, hope for healing, and ultimate empowerment.
Through it all, Comer actively moves around the stage, rearranges the furniture for the different locales, jumps on and off the central table, changes clothes (set and costumes by Miriam Buether), sets up a camera for her live-feed video statement and questioning (video by William Williams for Treatment Studio), and assumes the distinctive voices and demeanors of the other figures in Tessa’s story, while delivering a superlative portrayal of the profoundly conflicted woman, filled with psychological depth, shifting feelings and reactions, empathy and commitment, without missing a beat (or seemingly taking a breath) and keeping us riveted for the entire 100 minutes. The stellar performance (which should garner her many more awards) is supported by Natasha Chivers’ dramatic lighting and mood-enhancing sound by Ben & Max Ringham.
With an estimated 80% of all rapes going unreported in the US because victims fear they won’t be believed and they’ll be victimized again by the police and in court, Prima Facie offers a compelling look at an important issue in the wake of the #MeToo movement, from a playwright who spent years as a practicing human rights and criminal defense lawyer, resulting in her questioning of the legal system. Like Tessa, she has come to the feminist realization that “On the face of it, something has to change.” This insightful production and powerful performance take significant steps towards making that much-needed change.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
Prima Facie plays through Sunday, June 18, 2023, at the Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $31-315 plus fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online. Please be advised that performances begin promptly and there is NO late seating. Masks are not required but are recommended.