In Don’t You F**king Say a Word, a new comedy by playwright Andy Bragen, the tennis court is a battleground where temperamental men wage war. What the women do—beyond discussing the men—is unclear. Sound like an even match? It’s not.
At its core, DYFSAW is a play about competition. Two women, Kate (Jennifer Lim) and Leslie (Jeanine Serralles) narrate the story of their boyfriend’s ongoing tennis rivalry. Leslie’s squeeze, Brian (Bhavesh Patel), has a short fuse, and struts the court like a middling prep school jock who never grew up. Russ (Michael Braun), Kate’s boyfriend and the more levelheaded of the two men, is better at keeping his frustrations internal.
In one of the fresher and more successful elements of the show, Kate and Leslie narrate the main action directly to the audience. The two women walk us through their boyfriend’s rivalry in the past tense, frequently hinting that the competition will eventually hit a boiling point.
The narrative comes through clearly, thanks to Lee Sunday Evans’s staging. Amy Rubin’s set design, a baby blue tennis court diagram that covers the floor and walls, is a minimalist feast for the eyes. Evan’s staging uses it both to create gorgeous geometric stage pictures and to show a clear separation between the two men; there is nary a moment in the whole show where the heat of competition doesn’t burn palpably. Another good choice: rather than trying to attempt an actual tennis match onstage, Evans has the two men miming it.
This exploration of competition, and competitive spirit, is a well-timed one. It’s impossible to think that the decision to have the play open during election week was not a conscious choice, and this lends the exploration a sense of urgency. The play ponders the question of whether, after a fierce competition on the court, it is possible for these two couples to carry on their off-court friendship as though nothing happened, as though a rivalry in the world of the game can be forgotten after the final whistle is blown. Can we brush ourselves off and come together after a hard-fought, bitter tournament? It’s not only a relevant question to pose this month; it’s the relevant question.
The problem with the play—and it’s a big one—is that the two women never talk about anything beyond their boyfriends. They are defined by the following questions: What makes their boyfriends so hot headed? What are the driving forces behind their boyfriend’s competitive behavior? What is going on inside their boyfriend’s minds?
The issue this creates is that, while the male characters are made out to be the assholes, it’s the female ones who get it worst by not being defined at all. Rather than using the women’s quest to study their boyfriends as an opportunity to empower the female characters and allow them to make their own strong choices, the structure of the play makes it so these questions about men end up completely defining the women. We leave the theater without ever learning Katy or Leslie’s wants, skills, needs, desires, or anything that would define them as their own unique characters in more than a surface-level way. They only ever really discuss the men.
In one exchange, Leslie ponders what makes the male characters “tick,” saying “To fight for something, with an opponent, a partner with full force, with love…it’s important, right? It makes them who they are.” Kate responds “Maybe so. But then what about us? How do we test ourselves?” At last, we think! Finally, we’re going to hear something, anything about these women. But it’s not to be. Leslie responds: “It’s hard enough figuring them out.” The line is supposed to be a cheeky and funny line, but it comes across as a denial of the character’s opinion; at best a failure to define Leslie as a character and at worst a rejection of the legitimacy of her feelings.
The disparity in how the play treats its male and female characters is perhaps best summed up in its final moments. Brian, after a climactic event, delivers an extensive monologue that is, in isolation, the strongest moment of the show. Patel performs it with subtle beauty, completing a character arc that ultimately shows that he’s grown and learned throughout the course of the story. Then, in the following scene, Katy and Leslie come back onstage. It’s the last chance for at least one of them to open up, to speak about herself and finally give us the inside depth that we know she has. Instead, they exchange a few words, roll out colored mats, and elect to silently do yoga.
It’s a shame that Kate and Leslie are never allowed onto the court themselves; we know they’d have the stamina.