At the play “Prima Facie,” which opened Sunday night on Broadway, the audience is hit by two wildly different sensations.
First, as we become fully absorbed by the harrowing story of Tessa, a brilliant young barrister whose life is horribly upended, there is great pain and sadness in watching her go through a trauma nobody should ever have to experience. Some viewers will be understandably overwhelmed by it all.
One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. At the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
Then, at curtain call, as we step outside of the drama and back into our seats at the John Golden Theatre, pure exhilaration washes over us — because we have just witnessed the emergence of an extraordinary new stage talent.
That would be the sensational Jodie Comer, who won an Emmy Award for playing the Russian assassin Villanelle on TV’s “Killing Eve,” and is every bit as good — nay, even better — live and in-person.
“Prima Facie,” which played London’s West End last year, somehow marks Comer’s professional stage debut. In the best of circumstances, when a film or TV star usually first treads the boards, they’re lauded for being surprisingly assured and confident — they hold their own, and you’re relieved you can actually hear them.
But Comer goes far beyond our basic expectations and into the upper echelons of greatness. The 30-year-old actress is remarkably alive with both the nuclear energy of newness and the sturdy force of someone who’s been at it for decades.
And “Prima Facie,” the one-woman play by Suzie Miller, is an ideal canvas for Comer’s prodigious skills.
Her Tessa is a London lawyer who specializes in sexual-assault cases, and is especially adept at poking holes — sympathetically, she believes — in the plaintiffs’ fuzzy recollections. She sees herself as a master of “the game of law” and bats away suggestions that accused men hire her to defend them just because she’s a woman.
But when she is raped at her apartment by a colleague who she’s been casually seeing, Tessa finds herself resenting and then opposing the very same system she has played a part in propping up.
The plot, which spans more than two years, allows us to meet a multitude of Tessas: the swaggering lawyer at the start, the daughter who fights for her working-class mom’s approval, the fun-loving partier and, finally, the victim who battles against all odds.
Most astonishing throughout are Comer’s quick shifts in posture, voice, pace and body language that instantly and impactfully reveal Tessa’s state of mind. The actress shoves heavy tables and chairs around the stage in director Justin Martin’s production, and looks drastically different by the end. I was in awe that I’d been in the room with the same person for an uninterrupted 100 minutes.
Comer becomes many other characters, too — Tessa’s mother, her assailant, friends, professors, policemen — but this is not the sort of play in which we’re meant to marvel at an actor convincingly playing 30 different parts like this season’s one-man “A Christmas Carol.” It’s Tessa’s journey that’s gripping, and Comer makes it more so.
Miller’s play itself is not always as sterling as the actress inhabiting it. At times, the piece invokes old tropes and cliches of one-person shows and veers into beat poetry territory.
And some will find Tessa’s final direct-address monologue to be more of an on-message essay than an in-character speech. But when you reframe it as a lawyer delivering her closing remarks, the words make sense. Miller’s play works well in the end.
At my performance, Comer took two quick, gracious bows as the audience kept on clapping. Why milk it? Surely she knows this won’t be her last standing ovation on Broadway.