Teenage girls are often trivialized in pop culture, subjected to lazy and reductive stereotyping and relegated to superficial “girlfriend of’’ roles.
Not in “Dry Land.’’ Ruby Rae Spiegel’s probing and unsettling drama, now receiving its Boston premiere at Company One Theatre under the taut direction of Steven Bogart, takes the experiences, dilemmas, friendships, and futures of teenage girls seriously.
At 22 (she was only 21 when “Dry Land’’ opened last year in New York), Spiegel is barely beyond the teen years herself. The playwright’s proximity to that turbulent life passage comes through in the empathy, clarity, and depth of understanding she brings to this coming-of-age-amid-crisis story. Where Spiegel’s youth is not evident is in her remarkably assured craftsmanship. “Dry Land’’ feels fresh and authentic and mostly, though not entirely, free of cliché.
The play revolves around a Florida high school swimmer named Amy, portrayed at Company One Theatre by Stephanie Recio, who delivers a superb performance. Amy is 17, pregnant, and intent on ending that pregnancy via a self-induced abortion.
Spiegel has said she considers “Dry Land’’ a political play, and of course any drama about abortion cannot be divorced from contemporary politics. Still, this is not a polemic. The playwright succeeds in illuminating the different challenges young women confront when navigating the shifting currents of adolescence, including the evolution of friendships and the formation of individual identity.
Recio’s portrayal of Amy captures the character in all her complexity and contradiction: fiercely assertive yet riddled with self-doubt, harboring secret dreams of being a writer yet determined to present herself to the rest of the world as not much more than a promiscuous party girl.
The play opens with Amy demanding that fellow swim team member Ester punch her in the stomach again and again. Ester, played by Eva Hughes, reluctantly complies. The punches are not gentle — it’s a measure of Recio’s commitment that she does not appear to flinch — and it’s hard to watch, though a more harrowing scene is in store later for the audience.
Most of the play takes place in a locker room (designed by Courtney Nelson) and consists of sometimes funny, often fraught conversations between Amy and Ester. Though Ester is the swimming team’s star, it’s clear that she looks up to, and is intimidated by, Amy. Even taking that power imbalance into account, Hughes is a bit too hesitant and self-effacing as Ester, as if the actress is still getting a handle on the character. Hughes is quite effective in the play’s climactic scene, however, as Ester taps into her own inner resources while helping Amy get through an ordeal.
The boy who impregnated Amy does not make an appearance. Apart from a custodian (played by Paul Trainor), the only male in “Dry Land’’ is a college student named Victor, who hosts Ester during a campus visit. Victor is played by Kadahj Bennett, who excelled two years ago as a nerdy wanna-be rapper in Idris Goodwin’s “How We Got On.’’ Bennett excels again in “Dry Land,’’ but the scene between Victor and Ester drags on too long, the only truly sluggish patch in the production.
Spiegel has a great ear for dialogue, and she gets the topical details right, such as when a vain and haughty classmate named Reba (Alex Lonati, very good) proclaims that “I’m such a Hermione’’ and Amy disputes that self-assessment, retorting that “you’re a Hufflepuff.’’ Reba immediately cries out: “Don’t even say that! I know it’s a joke but like don’t even say that.’’
More broadly, the playwright captures the rhythms of adolescent speech and the random connections teenagers make — with seeming non sequiturs that are fully comprehended by both speaker and listener — and the way they can skitter around the point one moment and be directly confrontational the next, as uncertainty alternates with certitude.
Playwriting careers are notoriously challenging to sustain (and Spiegel has already been hired for the writing staff of a Netflix series), but she could be a significant voice in American theater. In a program note, Company One Theatre artistic director Shawn LaCount says that “Dry Land’’ reminds him of “a similar feeling’’ when the company presented Annie Baker’s “The Aliens’’ five years ago, before Baker went on to win a Pulitzer Prize (for “The Flick’’) and became one of the hottest playwrights in the country. That’s a bold comparison, but on the strength of “Dry Land,’’ it does not feel like an exaggerated one.
Play by Ruby Rae Spiegel. Directed by Steven Bogart. Presented by Company One Theatre at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 30. Tickets:
$15-$38. 617-933-8600, www.companyone.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.