Broadway’s Singular Sensational “Prima Facie”

Jodie Comer in Broadway’s Prima Facie. Photo by Helen Murray.

The Broadway Theatre Review: Prima Facie

By Ross

Making its case strong and sharp, Prima Facie, the new tense and dynamic play written wisely by Suzie Miller (Sunset Strip; Dust) has landed firmly and intact at Broadway’s Golden Theatre determined to present all of the essential facts in its intense indictment of the law and all the misogyny that is laced within. Poised in bold silence under the fluorescent flickering of light, Olivier Award-winning Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve“) beckons us in to take the stand. She is the powerful thoroughbred standing erect and forceful, up high on a table, here to hold together and to jump into the meat and minutia of the matter at hand.

It’s a captivating invitation; Comer as Tessa, one of London’s most promising and effective defense lawyers, and she is electrifying, with just the right temperature to play with and stretch out this tightly wound unraveling based inside and around the legal parameters of the ‘burden of proof‘. Like most legal proceedings, one party stands tall, and Comer dons this cat-and-mouse wigged game with razor-sharp focus, walking us through the cross-examination that she narrates with a confidence that is both charged and ultimately harrowing.

She is definitely the smartest one in the room, able to see how the pieces will fall before anyone else even has a chance to catch up. Tessa has made a name for herself, doing work that would make many uncomfortable. She defends men charged with sexual assault (like that ‘Orange Monster’ who is on trial this same week for the same violent crime) and finds an almost arrogant pleasure in winning the case, even if it means, compassionately, cross-examining the assault victim with cunning charm in order to find the window of opportunity that she will seize with an unflinching grin. It’s in that legal arena, where the scalding takes place and where the character truly lives out her ambition. It’s here where Comer’s Tessa finds meaning. It’s not perfect, she tells us, but it is the thing she believes in, as well as the thing that has elevated her from her working-class Liverpool roots. And she makes little to no apologies for it.

Jodie Comer in Broadway’s Prima Facie. Photo by Helen Murray.

Those first moments of pure adrenaline fill the stage with unbridled passion and excitement. Directed with an almost dizzying gallop and force by Justin Martin (Young Vic/NT’s The Jungle), Prima Facie drives forth the indictment with an almost suffocating determination, especially to those who personally understand what is being put on trial here. She tells us she is just a storyteller, a good one, testing the case without destroying the victim. People are fallible, she understands, just like their instincts, and she uses her gender and her outward compassion as a tool so she can create a framework of uncertainty. And then she drives her hooks in with unbridled passion. She takes apart a macho police detective, using his own arrogance against him. This we applaud, in a way, but it becomes more difficult when it’s the nervous and uncomfortable female victim of the assault. That’s where her abilities become more complicated to get behind wholeheartedly. And where the true complication in this well-constructed trial exists.

Tessa is an invaluable force in the courtroom, a tight sharp case for stardom as performed by Comer. But we start to feel the shift in the internalized cross-examination of self as the roles are unceremoniously flipped, and the tide turns on this winning thoroughbred. She has entered into a romantic entanglement with a fellow attorney, one that feels safe at first, yet we know and feel that there will be a reckoning, one where she is no longer here with him. He is in a different place than her, a scary dark place, and the instincts that were relied upon have been vomited out. The rain comes down hard soon after, washing her once solid stance away in a sharply defined moment that is only the beginning of a journey made that will leave us all sitting uncomfortably in the witness box.

We see it coming, even as we don’t. Which is the cutting cleverness that lives inside Miller’s impeccable writing. The days tick by, from one to seven hundred and eight-two. “This is me,” she tells us, in shock and disbelief, knowing all that will come at her, yet not really knowing how to avoid it. She still holds true to her confidence in self, but she also sees the male-dominated world she once worshipped, with few allies sitting in that courtroom that used to be her home. On a sharply morphing set, designed with clever brilliance by Miriam Buether (Broadway’s Three Tall Women), who also designed the well-formulated costuming, the energy and allegiance shift as wisely and quickly as the lighting designed meticulously by Natasha Chivers (Old Vic’s The American Clock) with the solid sound design by Ben and Max Ringham (West End/Broadway’s Betrayal) backing up the procedure perfectly.

Tessa knows what it means to be violated now, and also how it feels to stand trial and speak her truth after the fact. The man who is the accused rapist isn’t the one who has to take the stand, the one who is charged with assaulting her, who held her down, covered her mouth with his hand, and painfully and unapologetically raped her. It is she who has to bear the burden of proof, who has to stand up and tell her story and be cross-examined by a defense lawyer who will try to do the same thing she has done to so many before. And it is there, somewhere within that 100-minute journey, we collectively experience the pain, the panic, and the horror of it all, as we are expertly guided through the configuration by Comer, director Martin, and playwright Miller.

Prima Facie is as sharp of a piece as can be, running fast and hard into trial, rarely giving us a moment to settle ourselves, as all of the assault cases light up, one by one, on the back wall calling attention to the injustices brought forth by the law’s construction. The impulse to scream out hangs heavy in the air, and for someone who knows the freezing feeling of our fight or flight brain, the experience is harrowing, exceptionally difficult, and painfully electric. Even as the ending speechifies and illuminates us like a jury hearing closing arguments, we aren’t impartial to the proceedings. Nor do we want to be. The play has done its due diligence, winning its case against the law and its limits with illuminating force and sharp power. Making its case, leaving no doubt in the room.



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