NEW YORK CITY — Being a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, I have had the opportunity to see and do things outside of the Utah theatre scene and outside my own comfort zone. Such was the case this weekend when a fellow critic friend of mine found out I would be in New York for BroadwayCon, and asked if I would come down to the DR2 Theatre in Union Square to see a world premiere of a show: No Mercy, by NYC-based playwright SMJ. The play is produced by the Moxie Arts Organization, which is committed to featuring artists from marginalized populations and communities. Because of my own desire to learn and grow as a critic, I was thrilled to have this opportunity.
No Mercy has a small cast of four players and revolves around the story of female professional wrestling. When I first learned this, I wondered if I had made the wrong decision to attend the show. What little I know of sports is much less in the wrestling world, so I thought perhaps I am out of my league with this production. Can I do it justice and watch it with an eye to the art without bias?
I found soon that I need not fear. Directors Miranda Cornell, Alex Might, and SMJ have woven together an interesting enough tale that even give a great time to outsiders of professional wrestling. Especially commendable is the work of fight and intimacy coordinator Alex Might, because much of this show relied on both the action of fighting, play fighting, and intimacy to propel the story forward, and without the guidance of Might, these things could have been catastrophic for the players.
No Mercy follows Maya Cruz (played by Kayla Zanakis) as she works to be the world champion of female wrestling. Her hopes are thwarted by everyone around her: her girlfriend, boss, and rival, all white and not understanding the challenges that Maya faces. Nat (played by Charlotte Vaughn Raines) owns the company and not only plays into the politics, but must figure out how to make keep turning a profit. Sophie (played by Maya Musial), is the current reigning champion, and it is hard to tell whether Sophie, her wrestling character, or both are racist. Liv (played by Chloé Lexia Worthington) is Maya’s girlfriend with a lot of secrets.
I found myself pleasantly surprised by the complexities of the plot. SMJ is excellent at writing dialogue that shows the complications of race, gender, bias, and discrimination in all avenues. In particular, the relationship with Maya and Liv showed how people can be connected and intimate but still not have the understanding of how life can be divided racially, economically, and socially. SMJ’s script also showed how people can let ambition get in the way of caring about each other. The choices made by the players to show how the characters respond to the racism of the fans, the way Maya chose to handle the racism, and the levels of comfort they had with the racism were also important and telling.
The DR2 Theatre has 99 seats, which means there is not a bad seat in the house. The set consisted of a wrestling ring center stage, and most of the action happened in and around the ring. This is something that I love about off-Broadway and smaller theatres in NYC. While traveling to New York City to see the greatest current shows on Broadway has its appeal, it is wonderful to be able to come to some of these smaller houses and see more intimate works in small spaces. No Mercy has a ticket price much lower than that of a Broadway show, yet had Broadway quality acting and a much more intimate setting. While the show did not have the flash or financing of a mega-hit musical, it certainly left me thinking—about internal bias, how people judge each other in the workplace, and how society chooses who wins and loses in life.
No Mercy brought SMJ to my attention, and I now follow this playwright and director on social media. I hope to see some of their works produced, and I think that a smart, adventurous group could bring SMJ’s works to Utah. And when planning your trip to New York City, be sure to check out the small companies that bring fascinating works like No Mercy to the stage.