Broadway review

New York’s new, must-see plays: ‘How to Defend Yourself’ and ‘The Coast Starlight’

The Daily Beast

March 13, 2023

Two brilliant new plays—“How to Defend Yourself” and “The Coast Starlight”—show people in a self-defense class and on a train revealing who they are, and what they desire and fear.

On Broadway, Jessica Chastain’s coup de théâtre at the climax of A Doll’s House is a genuine, slack-jaw making surprise. Surely, it cannot be matched or even outdone.

Well, Liliana Padilla’s sharply excellent play, How to Defend Yourself (New York Theatre Workshop, to April 2) has a visually striking denouement that gives an equivalent frisson of shock. It caps Padilla’s nuanced, saltily direct, moving, very funny play—directed by Padilla, Rachel Chavkin, and Steph Paul—about what safety really means for a group of young women (and two men).

The audience is facing the confines of a college gym where a group of young women gather to learn the techniques of self-defense. The class is led by the tautly muscled, extremely focused Brandi (Talia Ryder), a VP of a college sorority who wants to inculcate the skills necessary to neutralize attackers. On You-Shin Chen’s evocative set featuring mats and padded walls, Brandi shows that she has all the moves, all the right words. She is extra-determined to teach them because an unseen friend, Susannah, is in hospital after a particularly vicious sexual assault (the play discusses but does not show the assault, or any other assault).

This is a mission for Brandi; she is patient but determined that this class do life-saving good: “My hope is to give you tools—not freak anyone out—but to give you tools to be in the world with more confidence in your in yourself and your ability to avoid danger.” Their bodies, she says, are weapons.

Sarah Marie Rodriguez’s Kara, the sorority’s social secretary, is so terrifyingly cool you feel every withering look and thinly veiled putdown she delivers. Yet she is also hiding a secret that is eating her up inside. Ariana Mahallati as Mojdeh seems innocent, wide-eyed; she wants to experiment sexually, but how to do so safely?

Her best friend Diana (Gabriela Ortega, fantastic) is as confident as Mojdeh seems nervous, but their friendship will be put to the test with a side of Diana as yet unseen. Still, Diana says it all, just as it is—like this to Mojdeh: “I wish girls fought more. Like beat the shit out of each other for fun. I wish that was like, a socially acceptable thing to do. Fight club, you know? If it was me and you, I think I’d win.” (She is forced to consider these words a little more carefully later in the play.)

Amaya Braganza’s Nikki comes into the group as a shuffling mouse, grows in confidence (you will cheer at a key moment), and then provides the play with an unexpected and chilling twist, forcing the characters—including Brandi—to rethink her zeal, and the purpose of the classes.

There are two men too: Sebastian Delascasas as Andy and Jayson Lee as Eggo. Laid-back Andy is one of those men who knows all the right words to say about consent, and genuinely wants to abide by them. But he also seems clueless. Eggo, as it will emerge, knows the rules, but is confused as to how both genders play by them—he has jagged personal experience.

How to Defend Yourself is not just a simple go-girl narrative about self defense; it opens up into a much more searching and gnarly play about male violence and trespass, friendship, identity, sexuality, self-expression, and bodily autonomy. The excellent cast make each individual vivid. There are occasional interludes where we see self-defense routines made into dances, and, in one lovely moment, a dance solo.

The play disavows preachy predictability, and sabotages the staples of easy, breezy self empowerment. We watch the group uncomfortably begin to do exercises together, argue, fall out, question, kind of flirt, jest, and then deconstruct the very notion of self-defense—both wittily and darkly.

The play’s final scenes—in which Chen’s design, Derosier’s lighting and Mikhail Fiksel’s impressive sound design help deliver a thrilling climax—take the audience to a series of unexpected spaces that illustrate, both whimsically and shatteringly, how we grow in and out of so many identities, and how we come to be who we are. Profound, funny, and shocking, one hopes How to Defend Yourself graduates to a bigger stage—truly, it should go to Broadway—just to prove A Doll’s House does not have the monopoly on big endings.


The Coast Starlight

Imagine the broadcast of whatever you have ever thought of all your fellow passengers on a train journey combined with the broadcast of whatever you have been going through yourself at the time of that journey.

The Coast Starlight (Lincoln Center Theater/Newhouse, to April 16) is another funny, moving dramatic jewel, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, that—just saying—would be perfect to be staged in the round at Circle in the Square on Broadway. Keith Bunin’s luminous play focuses on a group of strangers on a train—the eponymous long-distance one that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle—and what they say to each other (very little) in contrast to the thoughts, confessions, and fantasies that run through their heads and which they convey direct to the audience (a lot).

The Coast Starlight perfectly captures this clash and melding of private and public, the spoken and silent, when traveling. The play makes all our inner voices become outer, and examines what we think of others without knowing a thing about them—and what we get very right, and very wrong.

It also evocatively conveys the lost-in-timeness of a long train ride, from the tilt and charge of the vehicle, to the in-betweenness of travel itself when we are all in very physical limbo, and how that limbo—especially if we are traveling alone—can send us on our own journeys inwards.

At first, it seems T.J. (Will Harrison, a recent breakout star in Daisy Jones & the Six) and Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá) might enjoy the cutest of meet-cutes. She draws animated cartoons, and isn’t sure where her relationship with her partner stands; he is a soldier contemplating military desertion and a complete change of life.

In front of us a raised stage has just six train seats on it, but Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting, Daniel Kluger’s sound effects, and 59 Productions’ projections coalesce to provide one of the most involving theatrical experiences so far of the season. As the journey continues, the landscape and light outside are conveyed by a background bar-code of color shifts. The stage rotates, and the six seats become occupied by four other passengers. As night falls, and as we learn more about them, so the combination and layout of the seats shift. Visually, the play feels both stark and a feast.

Joining the kind and scared T.J. and the observant Jane, Noah (Rhys Coiro) is a handsome, hot former serviceman. Taciturn and caring, he immediately recognizes a fellow soldier in T.J.

The relative peace of the carriage is blown up by Liz (an electrically fabulous Mia Barron), a loudmouth, new-agey, seen-it-all-done-even-more life survivor, who has just come from a disastrous “extraordinary couples’ workshop” which has helped destroy her present relationship—“and it’s run by something called the Human Awareness Institute, in case you had any doubt it’s complete horseshit,” she says. This is one conversation not just shared with the audience, but the entire train carriage as Liz is relating it all to her friend by phone. T.J. calms her by offering to get her (and everyone else) a drink.

Next, Ed (Jon Norman Schneider), a bedraggled businessman, appears. Drunk and aggressive, he almost starts a fight, but again it is T.J. who calms him. “The liquor was radiating off him like bug spray,” notes Noah. And finally, there is Anna (the excellent Michelle Wilson, Tony-nominated in Sweat) who has just buried her brother in San Francisco, and who for T.J.—again with not much of a direct conversation shared between them—feels an empathy and maternal desire to protect.

Slowly, Bunin’s characters reveal themselves (Ed is not the unthinking dolt he seems; Liz’s caustic phone spew conceals a wizened empathy), studded with the overarching tension of whether T.J. will desert the army, and whether he and Jane will finally romantically connect.

Like How to Defend Yourself, The Coast Starlight is as witty as it is deep. Inside her head, Liz notes: “When you think about it, all the famous songs about California are actually about leaving California. Take Gladys Knight: L.A. proved too much for her man, so he’s leaving on the midnight train to Georgia. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. Joni Mitchell is gonna quit this crazy scene to go someplace where it snows so she can ice-skate.”

Ed, inside his own head notes: “And Don Henley just wants to check out of his fucking hotel, but they won’t let him leave. Shit, man, I should’ve listened more closely to those old songs. The people who wrote them—they knew things. They were trying to warn me to get out of California before I drown here.”

Eventually, we find out what happens to all of the people who shared a carriage—and who without saying much to each other told us everything.