Off the streets 

Theater Emory tackles sexual abuse in Jersey City

There's a difference between "swearing" and "cursing," as the play Jersey City reveals during its opening scene. Over a dinner-time discussion, teenage Magaly (Taylor Dooley) tells her father (Ron Prather) that taking the Lord's name in vain is swearing, and other profanities are cursing. Or maybe it's the other way around -- I don't remember exactly -- but Pa's irritated exclamation of "Jesus Fuck!" covers both bases.

Perhaps playwright Wendy Hammond makes the distinction at the top of Jersey City to both establish rules of propriety and then break them. The play itself features not only enormous amounts of swearing and cursing, but moments of callousness, physical brutality and twisted sexuality that have every expectation of shocking the audience.

Having its Southeastern premiere at Theater Emory, Jersey City shows a willingness to unflinchingly look at ugly, street-level issues, and can be refreshingly provocative in a theatrical season that's seemed a bit restrained. Despite its in-your-face approach to real-world concerns, Theater Emory's inventive production can often seem like an exercise in sensationalism.

When we first see Brooklynites Magaly and Pa, they're testing each other with baseball trivia and eating a meal like any other daughter and father would. Gradually we begin to suspect that something's not right underneath the veneer of peaceful domesticity, and later, when Pa catches Magaly stealing food before running away from home, the play explodes with physical violence and sexual assault, caught in the dim light of the refrigerator. What may be most unsettling is that when Pa weeps with remorse afterward, she comforts him.

Magaly eventually makes her escape, and we catch up with her, bruised and shell-shocked, in the graffiti-covered bathroom of a Jersey City strip club. One of the dancers (Jennifer Hohensee) grudgingly agrees to help her out, sending Magaly home with a young bouncer from El Salvador, David (David Pollack). But Pa pursues her every inch of the way, and despite his public violence, it never occurs to anyone to call the cops on him.

David allows Magaly to sleep on the floor of his squalid apartment, and the two young people, at first wary and hostile, gradually warm to each other. But when they try to act on their mutual attraction, she reveals sadomasochistic tendencies that unnerve them both. At the beginning of Act Two they've been together for four months, and despite their affection, Magaly's intimacy problems are tearing them apart.

Dooley was recently seen hatching from a giant egg in Theater Emory's Back to Methuselah, and in Jersey City she plays another young woman struggling toward a different kind of maturity. As Magaly she runs a gamut of complex emotions and proves fittingly expressive throughout, but the role contains so many contradictions as to be all but unplayable.

The 15-year-old girl must shift from astounding naiveté to brassy attitude to mixed-up sexuality, at times within the same sentence. She's resourceful and assertive, yet sustains striking delusions, especially early in the play when she speaks of Jersey City as if it's Shangri-la: "The streets are clean in Jersey City -- I could get clean there." But if we're required to have patience and pity for her illusions one minute, we're also meant to be amused by her tough-talking "moxie" the next, as she argues toe-to-toe with David.

Angry outbursts between the two teens frequently involve repetitive dialogue and the hurling of props and profanities, like imitation David Mamet: "You threw the plate!" "I threw the plate!" etc. There's a climactic confrontation that seems too calculated to provide a therapy-prescribed catharsis, but Magaly and David end on a note that realistically suggests that the wounds of abuse heal only gradually.

Jersey City shares themes of incestuous relationships with How I Learned to Drive, and Prather helps convey the way Pa's feelings for Magaly can be both tender and twisted. Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning script has a richness and subtlety that Jersey City never achieves, but if nothing else, Wendy Hammond deserves credit for venturing into the kind of dark corners where violence can be routine and the world can be indifferent.

Jersey City plays through March 3 at the Mary Gray Munroe Theater, Dobbs University Center, 605 Asbury Circle, with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., with matinees at 2 p.m. Feb. 25 and 3 p.m. March 3. $14. Call 404-727-5050.

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