Review: Brutal Intimacy and Exuberance Defines ‘Usual Girls’

Heads up, fans of Sarah DeLappe’s soccer play, “The Wolves” — admirers of the original cast in particular. Ming Peiffer’s new play “Usual Girls,” at Roundabout Theater Company, has almost nothing to do with sports, yet it feels very much of the same youthfully female-centric world, and its ribald, raucous comedy is similarly embedded with pain.

Well done, then, in choosing as its star Midori Francis, who in the ensemble cast of “The Wolves” played No. 8, the sweet nerd who delivered the epiphanic line: “Omigosh, you guys, does that mean we’re hobbits?”

In “Usual Girls” Ms. Francis plays Kyeoung, who when we first meet her is a child learning a playground game called lava monster. She’s new at this school, somewhere in 1980s Ohio, but she’s a self-possessed little thing. Already she has made some friends who will be in her life for years: Lindsay (Nicole Rodenburg), a rigid alpha; and Anna (Abby Corrigan), who’s endearingly weird.

With the blurting unselfconsciousness of the very young (all of the children here are played by adults), these three are talking about sex. Or, rather, piecing together the intel they’ve gathered about it — from Victoria’s Secret catalogs and Kyeoung’s messed-up father’s stash of “special magazines.”

Overhearing Anna use a vulgarity, an easily offended bully named Rory (Raviv Ullman) threatens to tell a grown-up unless one of them kisses him.

“Why do you even need a kiss?” Kyeoung asks.

“Because that’s what girls are supposed to give boys,” Rory says. “That’s why we even play with them.”

What girls are expected to give to boys, and women to men, is the searing core of “Usual Girls,” which over 90 minutes follows Kyeoung from elementary school through adolescence to college and beyond. Racism figures prominently, too; Rory is not the only one who thinks that Kyeoung’s Korean ancestry means she has a different anatomy than white girls.

This is partly a play about the brutal intimacy of growing up together, and if you’ve ever been a girl, the friendships here — in their details and dynamics — may give you stinging flashbacks. Their exuberance, though, may give you flashbacks of joy.

Impeccably directed by Tyne Rafaeli in Roundabout Underground’s tiny Black Box Theater, “Usual Girls” has a fine cast of nine, and a stellar design team that includes Arnulfo Maldonado (set), Ásta Bennie Hostetter (costumes), Jen Schriever (lights) and Tei Blow (sound).

With Jennifer Lim as a woman looking back on her past, it’s a memory play, really, though that phrase suggests a work far gauzier than what Ms. Peiffer has constructed, which gets very dark when it touches on predation and violence.

In vivid, time-jumping scenes, we see the myriad ways that Kyeoung and the other girls are punished from an early age — and encouraged to punish one another — for sexual curiosity, desire, experience, attractiveness or lack thereof. These inquisitive young humans soak in the culture around them, imbibing some profoundly warping ideas.

The script’s weakness is in Ms. Peiffer’s tendency to finish scenes with lines that feel like flourishes. She undermines the play’s ending with a similar lack of subtlety, detracting from the overall power.

Without a lead as bold, moving and full-on funny as Ms. Francis, in a production less accomplished than Ms. Rafaeli’s, those quibbles would matter more.

But in its world premiere, “Usual Girls” is exciting to watch. With hilarity and grimness, it connects the dots between pleasure, pain and shame.

Usual Girls

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Usual Girls
Through Dec. 16 at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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