Issue plays always run the risk of becoming polemics, and Melinda Lopez’s new “Back the Night” is no exception. The issue is sexual assault on women, and the play climaxes with a Take Back the Night march on a college campus. No gray area there. But Lopez asks whether a lie — perhaps more than one — can serve the greater good. And the production now up at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre shows how the ramifications of that question can take “Back the Night” from message play to drama.
Lopez sets the action at a small liberal arts college with a fraternity row. Cassie has got her forehead busted up; accompanied by Sean, she arrives at Em’s dorm room explaining she was assaulted by a Theta on her way home from the observatory. Not raped, but struck on the head because she has a blog detailing campus assaults and a petition to the president demanding the fraternities be shut down. Cassie makes a video that galvanizes the national media, and the marchers include Katie Couric, Megyn Kelly, and Marco Rubio.
Em has her own issues. She’s pre-med and tutors Spanish; her boyfriend, Brandon, is a Delta and takes Ceramics. Em’s mother, Senator Santos, is up for reelection and trailing in the polls. Em has her own history with Thetas, four of them, in the fraternity’s basement. But Cassie’s story doesn’t add up, so Em has to ask what gives. She also has to ask her mother whether the senator’s at-the-march revelation of college rape isn’t another convenient lie. And she has to ask herself whether her own coverup of what happened with the Thetas isn’t the most painful lie of all.
All this whizzes by in 90 minutes, with no intermission. Rob Eastman-Mullins’s thoughtful set, on a broad but shallow thruststage, is anchored by a clock tower at one end and the observatory at the other. A pediment overhead bears the Greek letters Alpha Delta Theta, and autumn leaves — it’s October — litter the stage.
The performances, directed by Daniela Varon, are callow and in some cases two-dimensional — this is a play that could still be fleshed out. John Kooi is chilling as the college president in denial; he’s also two different reporters and a college police officer. Stephanie Clayman is giggly as the dean who supports Cassie, Hillary-like as Em’s senator mom.
Michael Underhill gives some depth to the hunky Brandon, whose fraternity has raised $30,000 for the Shriners but is also guilty of abuses. When he asks Em why Cassie wasn’t smart about being out alone at night, Em asks why a woman should have to be smart to be safe from her fellow students. Evan Horwitz’s Sean is totally supportive of Cassie, but he doesn’t probe the inconsistencies in her story, and when the march gets underway, he seems less interested in women’s safety than in persuading the administration to build a dorm for gay students.
That leaves Amanda Collins’s Cassie and Melissa Jesser’s Em. As a message play, “Back the Night” is unexceptionable. What makes it exceptional is the relationship between the two women. When Collins and Jesser start going at each other, “Back the Night” stops being about women as victims and starts being about women as persons. The kind who own the night.
BACK THE NIGHT
Play by Melinda Lopez. Directed by Daniela Varon. Set, Rob Eastman-Mullins. Lights, David Wilson. Costumes, Rachel Padula Shufelt. At Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, through Feb. 28. Tickets: $10-$30. 866-811-4111, www.bostonplaywrights.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.