Review: ‘Prima Facie’ is a provocative #MeToo legal thriller

Jodie Comer in ‘Prima Facie.’
Photo by Bronwen Sharp

On the face of it, ‘Prima Facie’ is a #MeToo legal thriller.

The photo art on the Playbill sums it up: the image of a young woman, calm and composed and dressed in a traditional English barrister’s horsehair wig and gown, juxtaposed with another image of the same woman, now with her hair down and screaming in uninhibited rage.

“Prima Facie,” a one-woman play by Suzie Miller and directed by Justin Martin (“The Jungle”), which comes to Broadway following earlier runs in Australia and London, is a tightly-constructed courtroom thriller with a #MeToo social conscience, play-by-play legal analysis, and an all-out, genuinely exhilarating performance by Jodie Comer (best-known for the BBC spy series “Killing Eve”).

As it begins, Tessa, a successful attorney in her thirties, is in the process of defending a man accused by sexual assault and cross-examining a witness for a prosecution — an experience she treats like a hunter stalking her prey. Legal practice, she tells us, is the equivalent of a game that she happens to excel in. She must be emotionally removed from what she is doing (in other words, never question whether her client may actually be guilty) and assures us that this is all part of a properly functioning, adversarial system of justice.

Tessa is on a hot streak of wins, on the verge of moving to a fancier office, and is in the process of beginning a romantic relationship with Julian, a fellow defense attorney — until one night when she is raped by Julian, which causes her sense of ease and entire life to fall apart, culminating in a courtroom sequence in which she is now the witness whose claim of sexual assault is being questioned and undermined under intense and uncomfortable cross-examination.

An insert to the Playbill contains a “trigger warning” that the play may cause emotional distress, in addition to disturbing statistics on sexual assault in the U.S., and links to various support groups and a space where survivors can anonymously share their stories,

“Prima facie” is a Latin legal term meaning “on the face of it.” Attorneys often refer to covering the basic elements of a legal claim as making out a “prima facie case.” As the pull-out poster of the insert reads, “on the face of it something has to change,” referring to Tessa’s ultimate conclusion that sexual assault victims are further victimized by the legal system as it is currently practiced.

The play’s provocative content is sure to provoke strong responses among audience members. But even if one disagrees with its views on the law and justice, there is really no denying that “Prima Facie” makes for gripping theater centered around a thrilling performance and urgent politics.

Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., primafacieplay.com. Through June 18.