Inside a Soccer Team Full of Secrets: Review of ‘The Wolves’
The Daily Beast
November 20, 2017
The soccer-mad teenage girls of The Wolves, are not named. The nine featured players in Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer-nominated debut play are numbered, according to the position they play on the pitch.
They communicate in the language of soccer and the language of competitive teenagers winding each other up, and seem surprised when— breaking through this crackling fog of noise—more complicated intimacies and truths emerge.
This is not a traditional play about young women. They are not defined by their relations to, or thoughts about, boys. This is not a play about sex or sexuality. (Well, it is, a bit, but not directly.)
This is a play about a sports team, and the people in it: how they speak, how they play the game, and behind that all the hopes, fears, upsets, loyalties, betrayals, and something even darker than all of that which ultimately binds them.
DeLappe’s play is a brilliantly written, performed, and directed (by Lila Neugebauer) entrée into a world of how teenage girls really speak to each other, and relate to one another when what they share is a collective identity, a team identity, a sporting identity—and how those identities intersect with friendship, ambition, and rivalry.
The play, now at Lincoln Center Theater after an off-Broadway run last year, unfolds over a series of training sessions for the Wolves.
Their stretches are as choreographed and exacting as an Esther Williams water ballet, and oddly those stretches match the emotional mood of whatever moment we happen to be intruding on. There’s a formalized grace to the stretching and training that is the bedrock beneath whatever drama is going on for the girls away from the field.
The warm-up sessions feel physically necessary, as well as ritualized bonding, and it is during the banter and bitching of the training sessions that we get to know the young women. Kind of.
There are so many qualifications in the viewing and analysis of the play, because you are as struck by the brevity and glancing nature of DeLappe’s words as you are by the actors’ footballing skills.
We sit, in the scaled-back round of the Newhouse stage, observing Laura Jellinek’s set, which is an endless green artificial turf. We don’t see any matches (including against the Wolves’ great rivals, the Hornets), we don’t see any crowds, the male coach—could be charismatic, could be a spy, could be a creep—remains unseen. And although we are in a small theater in the heart of New York City, the play’s great achievement is that you immediately feel you are on the bleachers of an AstroTurf field somewhere in suburban America.
There are four ways in and out of the stage, and through which the players appear and disappear. Dribbling, jumping, squatting, joking, having periods, suffering from colds, and sometimes arguing. And this backchat covers everything about the past horrors of Cambodia (and who was responsible for them, and do they really have Skype there, and how do you pronounce Khmer Rouge), and the possibility of soccer scouts in the stands and what their life-changing presence could mean.
The polyphony of the play is the first thing your ear gets accustomed to. The girls speak over one another, but in their manner and what they say we get to know them.
You least want to get on the wrong side of #7 (Brenna Coates); she’s the loudest and most confrontational especially when it comes to facing off against her captain (#25, Paola Sanchez Abreu), who’s resolute, strict, and who—in one moment—becomes the target of the real ire of #7 when the latter suffers a critical injury.
Even then DeLappe doesn’t write what you might expect; the real explosions of the play are brief and terrible ruptures. But there is also a recognizable trajectory to each. And there are flashes of other stories, left tantalizingly out of our reach, such as #25’s relationship with another girl, which has made her so happy.
Somehow, in a play short on long-winded confessionals and exposition, it feels as if we come to know—through DeLappe’s writing and the uniformly excellent performances—all the players if not well, then believably enough.
The most mystery surrounds #46 (Tedra Millan), who is new in town and who claims never to have played on a team before but who is utterly brilliant. No, she says she doesn’t live in a yogurt, which would be impossible she has to explain, but a yurt.
Casual racism, ignorance, kindness, and crass insensitivity all swirl together. #8 (Midori Francis) is the sweetest-natured of the lot, and easily upset by the squalls that flare between the girls; and these squalls come from nowhere, such as when one girl carelessly ventures into talking about death and cancer, which has clearly affected another girl all too intimately.
This is the kind of play that hints at eating disorders (#2, Sarah Mezzanotte, eats orange slice after orange slice, then brings up the half-digested mulch again into the bag of slices).
What is said, done, and felt away from the field is as important as what we see happen on it. We see it in the fevered physical gesticulations of Lizzy Jutila, the almost-silent goalkeeper #00, who in one astonishing solo scene—lit as a kind of individual dreamscape by Lap Chi Chu—throws herself into wrenching physical free fall as she works out alone; all inner and outer demons on vivid display. It is a mini, painfully physical parable on the price of excellence and the desire to succeed.
The most pivotal event happens outside the sphere of the play, and even later we only hear of it glancingly. That fits into the unsaid-and-unseen schema of the play, but it means the audience cannot know the depths of what has happened. But we can see that it has, and that is enough.
The last part of The Wolves is spent gently unpicking its impact. The team has momentarily fragmented, and watching that sense of being split asunder, then being falteringly glued together again (the girls re-enter the stage not in their soccer uniforms, reminding us of their lives away from the field). This is moving to observe, particularly so when an unexpected 10th character, Mia Barron’s “Soccer Mom” enters.
It is her daughter whose tragedy has affected the team, and she has some urgent words of advice to impart and (less overtly) comfort from being around the team.
What The Wolves aims to embody—something secret, unbreakable, unknowable to everyone but the team—is made clear in the final, very loud seconds. Their sense of shared ritual full-bloodedly reasserts itself. Together, they are stronger than we, and maybe even they, know.