MsTrial: When Sexual Tension Crosses the Line Into Sexual Assault
The first act of Dep Kirkland's MsTrial (now at New World Stages) plays like a staged version of those sexual-harassment training videos office workers across America are now forced to endure on a semi-regular basis. It's about three lawyers burning the midnight oil in preparation for the civil trial of a major transportation accident. Lead attorney John Paris (played by Kirkland) has brought in his nephew, Dan (Alan Trinca), and former prosecutor, Karen (Christine Evangelista), to assist with the case.
John tells Karen that she is a "sensitive, beautiful woman," but also "one god damned fine trial lawyer." Sexual innuendos swirl, mostly stirred up by the older (but not necessarily wiser) John. "Too much caffeine, and not enough sex," he diagnoses a flare-up of tempers. And we understand from the first scene that he will try to remedy this ailment — whether the patient wants it or not.
Of course, Kirkland's language is far more colorful than anything HR would ever approve. We are told that going to trial is akin to both combat and "being f*cked by an elephant and enjoying it." Expletives fly between knockoff Mamet lines like, "In this firm, we kill our food and we eat what we kill." Caught in this rushing river of metaphor, the performers furiously swim to the banks of naturalism, attempting to make their characters appear somewhat human. All emerge completely soaked, if not drowned by the endeavor.
This off-Broadway debut represents something of a strange comeback for MsTrial, a play that debuted in Los Angeles in 2002 (when lady lawyers and the honorific "Ms." were not exactly exotic concepts). Kirkland is a former attorney himself, having served as the original prosecutor in the murder case in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He has even published his own telling of those events in a book called Lawyer Games. MsTrial seems to offer an insider's view of the lawyer games that take place during all-nighters at the office — but it's one that the audience finds hard to accept, judging by the halting applause that greets the intermission, which arrives a mere 45 minutes into this two-act drama.
Rick Andosca directs the actors to a feverish pace, but that still cannot compensate for a leaden script that presents certain challenges the creative team hasn't overcome. Bill Clarke has designed an attractive set portraying Paris's law office, complete with an overstuffed bookshelf and leather couch. Mitchell Fenton lights it handsomely, and Mimi Maxmen's costumes (rumpled suits, loose ties) convince us that these are indeed overworked lawyers.
Unfortunately, Clarke's set requires painfully extended transitions, during which black-clad stagehands scurry to prepare the next scene. Kirkland writes one scene for an entirely different location, necessitating a full set change (and two new actors) before switching back to Paris's office. It's a lot of time squandered in the dark.
MsTrial miraculously rallies in the second act, as Kirkland fully unpacks his themes and leaves us with some disturbing questions: Is "reasonable doubt" a fair standard in questions of date rape? When society has not yet fully accepted the concept of date rape, won't a jury of our peers always approach these cases with some reasonable doubt? Does an adversarial justice system unhelpfully trigger the tribal instinct, leading us to only accept evidence that confirms our preconceived notions? And in a legal system that regularly devolves to trial by combat, won't the biggest, scariest champion always win, even when he is wrong?
These are worthy questions, and I look forward to seeing a play that convincingly dramatizes them — MsTrial isn't it.