Review: Jodie Comer Sees Both Faces of the Law in the Powerful Prima Facie  

Voicing a dozen characters of various genders and classes, Comer makes her Broadway debut in a one-woman show about a defense attorney turned plaintiff.

Jodie Comer in ‘Prima Facie.’ Helen Murray

Prima Facie | 1hr 40mins. No intermission. | Golden Theatre | 252 W 45th Street | 212-239-6200

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As fashionista assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve, Jodie Comer whacked plenty of men. Women fell before her, too; the giddy slayer did not discriminate. So it’s fitting that in the breathless opening sequence of Prima Facie, Comer’s ace barrister Tessa dispatches a man testifying against her client, and then the woman accusing her client of rape. Narrator-hero Tessa describes the courtroom combat with the eagle-eyed mounting frenzy of a sports commentator. Her weapon of choice? Skull-crushing cross-examination. 

To tweak the Funny Girl lyric: Get ready for her, loves, ’cause she’s a Comer. The formidable star has not chosen an easy lift (she moves her own conference tables, ffs). Quite the Broadway debut (after a West End run): a 100-minute solo in which she dashes about the stage voicing a dozen characters of various genders and classes, holding forth atop tables, mime-vomiting over a chair, changing from work clothes into dress and heels, getting soaked in a shower of rain, and, finally, the greatest feat of all: looking plain with hair tied back and face scrubbed of makeup. Comer figuratively strips her character to the bone to demand justice for victims of sexual assault. You know, an ordinary TV actor stage gig. 

Jodie Comer in ‘Prima Facie.’ Bronwen Sharp

Apart from the animal pleasure of watching Comer burn a few thousand calories, there is drama to be had, courtesy of Australian writer and former human-rights lawyer Suzie Miller. Appalled by the lack of nuance and humanity she witnessed in rape trials—the tendency to simplify issues of consent, or to subject women to evidentiary procedures that re-traumatize and compromise their ability to give testimony—Miller wrote this fierce morality tale. Although few of us have statistics easily at hand (a program insert informs us that every 98 seconds a woman is sexually assaulted in America), you won’t find many audience members questioning the severity of the problem. To be one out of three woman in society is to have a horror story. 

Even if the jury’s on her side, Miller has a burden of proof to keep us hooked (celebrity or no). And so she constructs, at times skillfully, a classic Aristotelian tragedy. A good person with an ingrained flaw undergoes a great reversal in fortunes, has a fall, and arrives at a shattering personal realization. That good person is Tessa, working-class hotshot defense attorney, frequently representing men accused of sexual assault, who we meet as a staunch, even zealous, believer in the purity of the legal process. “[D]on’t take sides,” she repeats from her days as a law student. “If the story has holes, then point them out. Because it’s not just your case, it’s the law that’s at stake.” Of course Tessa knows that a courtroom win may have set a criminal free. “If a few guilty people get off,” she reasons, “then it’s because the job was not done well enough by the prosecutor and the police. Due process is everything.”

The inevitable fall comes when Tessa (who practices in London and visits her mom in Liverpool) begins a workplace affair with a posh, flirty colleague, Julian. Swept up in the romance and good sex, the boozy dates and heart-to-hearts over gelato, Tessa doesn’t—can’t—see the sickening twist their relationship takes during a very drunken night at her place. (One wonders if the date-rape drug GBH played a part, but Miller leaves that possibility vague.) 

As her status in society, law, and the sacred sphere of her own mind is flipped upside down, Tessa goes from elite warrior of justice to abject, wounded plaintiff. She begins a journey through the humiliating gantlet of seeking redress; Miriam Buether’s imposing set—absurdly high walls filled with hundreds of case files encased in white binders—rises skyward, as rain pours down at the front of the stage. Her body now the scene of a crime, Tessa is banished from the kingdom of law. But she will return, shrived and determined. If there is no happy ending, there is clarity, which is a victory of sorts.

The clipped, verse-like script buffets us with waves of vivid detail and quick cuts, mostly delivered at top speed by Comer. After twenty minutes of Tessa’s motor-mouthed triumphalism and lawyer-splaining one longs for strategic pauses to texture the tale, but perhaps fatigue is part of the tactic. We must tire of Tessa’s blustery assurance, so her reversal carries greater weight and complexity. Even so, Miller’s play seems padded at the top and overly preachy at the bottom, pressing home a case it has already won with metaphorical italics and boldface. Nevertheless, Comer’s astoundingly fluid, musical and passionate performance wins the day. She leaves nothing on the field. 

Watching Tessa dissect the masculine-centric law and its gendered understanding of consent, you may recall another Broadway play that addressed women’s bodies and the laws that disempower them: Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. Not quite as faceted as that remarkable intertwining of theatrical memoir and political treatise but still potent, Prima Facie (expertly staged by Justin Martin) is a civic object-lesson, an urgent wakeup call addressed to us, the final jury. 

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Review: Jodie Comer Sees Both Faces of the Law in the Powerful Prima Facie