Despite Strong Stagecraft, 'Back the Night' Disappoints

“Every day that goes by and that frat is still standing is another day that we are not safe!” declares Cassie (Amanda Collins), who finds herself at the center of a nationwide controversy concerning campus violence against women in Melinda Lopez’s original play “Back the Night.” Assault, rape, and death threats are weighty topics, and Lopez’s play comes at a time when anger about sexism, privilege, and related administrative ineptitude is reaching a boiling point. However timely, though, Lopez’s message is muddled by strange plot choices with stranger implications. Running Feb. 4 to Feb. 28 at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, “Back the Night” offers excellent stagecraft but frustratingly little clarity about the issues it means to address.

For a while, “Back the Night” develops largely as would be expected in a play about campus violence: Cassie comes to her friends Em (Melissa Jesser) and Sean (Evan Horwitz) with a gash in her forehead received behind a frat house at a “competitive university in your part of the country,” as the program says. They demand action, first from their school and then from their country, but even as they gain momentum, they know the national attention span is short—a clever mechanism that heightens the already significant urgency. The central trio is eminently likable and real; they’re funny, ambitious, loving college students.

But Lopez unexpectedly turns on her characters. By the end of the play, she has implied that nearly every woman on the stage has lied about her own assault experience. During one particularly troubling exchange, a character is accused of making up an assault for attention, and she does not deny it. This development is, perhaps, a pivot to a broader question of whether the ends justify the means, but in this context, it disturbingly perpetuates widely-held, sinister assumptions about women who report rape. Because of Lopez’s choice of subject matter and obvious sympathy for the characters, however, this choice comes across not malicious but bewildering.

Fortunately, even if “Back the Night” disappoints in substance, it—including Lopez’s script—excels in style. In fact, one reason the turn is so shocking is that the “competitive university in your part of the country” feels so real. Lopez gives her characters meaningful, complex relationships and imbues the plot with slow-burning drama. Jesser, Horwitz, and particularly Collins bring depth, subtlety, and humor to their characters, who crack wise about such familiar topics as rich parents, English degrees, and Beyonce-singing a cappella groups. Aided by Michael Underhill’s portrayal, even Brandon, Em’s boyfriend and a seemingly simple “bro” who only gets a few scenes, becomes an honest portrait of the good in fraternities. Ensemble actors Stephanie Clayman and John Kooi acquit themselves admirably in a wide variety of roles, constructing the adult world in which the students find so much wrong.

The production staff also deserves high praise. Director Daniela Varon builds tension throughout, and the play’s final scenes thrill thanks in part to her craftsmanship. Scenic designer Rob Eastman-Mullins’s set is gorgeous. Autumn leaves, Greek letters, and other collegiate imagery unobtrusively but firmly establish the play in its setting. The permanent background flexibly accommodates a range of scenes, with the help of Varon’s creative blocking and David Wilson’s lighting; a conversation in a car, created using only chairs, lights, and pantomime, was surprisingly visually compelling.

In short, every element of the production developed after Lopez first decided to make her women liars is excellent. Lopez’s actual writing, the cast’s acting, the staff’s staging—fantastic. Tragically, although this execution makes for 90 minutes of great theater, the most striking aspect of “Back the Night” is its confounding moral. What point does it make that a brave, charismatic character who wants to change the world falls into an outdated, dangerous stereotype? And insofar as fiction fundamentally reveals truth, how much truth can a story tell when it takes place in a world so different from our own, in which men who escape consequences for their awful actions are far more common than women who completely invent their own assault? One would hope that the national dialogue about campus violence would finally yield some answers to disturbing questions, not create new ones.

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