‘Prima Facie’ Review: Jodie Comer’s Barrister on Broadway
The solo play by Suzie Miller, which arrives in New York after an award-winning London run, stars the ‘Killing Eve’ actress as a defense lawyer who rethinks her belief in the legal system after being sexually assaulted.
By Charles Isherwood
April 23, 2023 10:00 pm ET
Jodie Comer PHOTO: HELEN MURRAY
As a confident, even arrogant lawyer whose life is upended by a sexual assault, landing her in the disturbing position of sitting in a witness box, Jodie Comer gives one of the most thrilling performances of the Broadway season in “Prima Facie,” a gripping solo play by Suzie Miller.
Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York
$31-$215.50, 212-239-6200, closes June 18
Ms. Miller’s drama—the title is Latin legalese for “on the face of it”—arrives in New York trailing accolades, including Olivier Awards for best play and best actress, for its London run. High expectations can occasionally lead to disappointment, particularly as “Prima Facie” is opening in the fray of a busy Broadway spring season. Not so here. This urgent drama about the legal and emotional brutalities women often endure when they file charges of rape, particularly against a friend, lover or even husband, strikes home with scalding power.
As the play begins, Tessa Ensler (Ms. Comer), a barrister, or senior trial lawyer, who specializes in defense, describes the excitement she feels when at work. She thrives on the adversarial nature of trials, exulting in the intensity, the drama, the high stakes: “Nerves taut, mind operating on ten tracks at once,” she says. “Tightly wound, waiting to spring.” Ms. Miller’s language has the concision and staccato rhythms that bring a churning vividness to the writing. This is not traditional speech but almost telegraphic language that flies at us with the whipping speed of thought made verbal.
A weekly look at our most colorful, thought-provoking and original feature stories on the business of life.PreviewSubscribe
Tessa takes pride in how she finesses witnesses, lulling them into believing she is less than adept, then going in for the slashing kill (“Bang, bang, bang, bang”), making the procedure seem like a subtle but eviscerating form of torture. Ms. Comer, a rising star known for her role in the series “Killing Eve,” here radiates a cocksure awareness of Tessa’s grasp of the law and the delicate dance of a trial.
Unlike many of her fellow barristers in the “chambers” where she works, Tessa comes from a middle-class background; we see glimpses of it in a scene set in the modest home where she grew up. Among her colleagues is a lawyer in the more standard, all-the-right-schools mold, Julian, with whom Tessa flirts happily when they and a group of their co-workers release the stress of the day by hitting the pub. When someone asks what she and her friend do, she answers: “Criminal defense barristers. We believe in the law. We believe in the system.”
Those beliefs, almost a religion to Tessa, will be put to the test with terrible immediacy. Her attraction to Julian, inflamed by liquor, leads to a night at her flat that begins with pleasurable lovemaking, but ends with Tessa, sickened by the booze, trying in vain to resist Julian’s more brutal, later assault.
Ms. Miller has a background as a lawyer, and has clearly studied, with empathy, the minutiae, both emotional and procedural, that women who pursue rape cases in circumstances similar to Tessa’s must grapple with. After the fateful night, the writing, describing both Tessa’s inner turmoil and the dehumanizing slow grind of the law (almost 800 days before the case comes to trial), becomes even more fragmentary. In turn, Ms. Comer’s performance sheds the gleaming surface bravado that made Tessa seem—feel—invulnerable, and takes on darker, more complex hues.
MORE THEATER REVIEWS
- ‘The Thanksgiving Play’ Review: Rehearsing a Holiday HistoryApril 21, 2023
- ‘Camelot’ Review: Aaron Sorkin’s Round-Table RewriteApril 14, 2023
- ‘Fat Ham’ Review: To BBQ or Not to BBQApril 13, 2023
- ‘White Girl in Danger’ Review: Michael R. Jackson’s Soap SpoofApril 11, 2023
It is as if Tessa has gone through the proverbial looking glass, and now finds herself dependent on those she once treated, with contempt, as adversaries, including prosecutors and even the police. Ms. Comer retains a steeliness in Tessa’s spine, but she makes excruciatingly clear the fear and uncertainty, even self-doubt, seething inside her. We see how tentatively and with what trepidation Tessa decides to bring charges—she, of all people, a victim? Ms. Comer beautifully transmits the dissonance that floods Tessa’s mind, which she can never quite shake as the case goes to trial.
The description “solo show” can be a red flag to frequent theatergoers—including this one. But “Prima Facie,” thanks to Justin Martin’s dynamic direction, the expertly constructed unfolding of the drama, and Ms. Comer’s captivating performance, never feels like a talkathon. Ms. Comer moves smoothly and swiftly between portraying numerous characters, differentiating each with nimble precision while never quite erasing the presence of Tessa herself—a remarkable acting feat.
Well, there is one talkathony passage: “Prima Facie” sags briefly toward the conclusion, when Tessa (or Ms. Miller) feels the need to spell out in detail how misguided and damaging the legal approach to many cases of rape can be. “The lived experience of sexual assault is not remembered in a neat, consistent, scientific parcel. And because of that, the law often finds the evidence ‘unbelievable.’” This peroration is unfortunate and unnecessary, since the brilliantly conceived drama that has preceded it has already seared into our minds these uncomfortable truths.
Mr. Isherwood is the Journal’s theater critic.