Jodie Comer comes to Broadway and turns up the heat in ‘Prima Facie’

NEW YORK — Jodie Comer doesn’t just take the stage. She consumes it.

In “Prima Facie,” she is, well, everything you could ask for from an actor, alone on that stage for 100 minutes, telling a tale with the urgency of a report from the rim of an active volcano.

The production is just that compelling in the Golden Theatre, where Suzie Miller’s rocket-propelled play marked its official Broadway opening Sunday night. Comer and director Justin Martin (fresh from his co-direction of the new American engagement of the refugee play “The Jungle”) inject supersonic dramatic fuel into the play, and it’s the kind of evening from which you don’t instantly rebound. You slowly recover.

Here the subject is sexual assault, but don’t think that you’re walking into a morality play. This is a crime procedural from the inside out, the inside being the life and career of a brash London barrister, a working-class woman from England’s North, who’s reached the top of her profession by dint of her work ethic and her wits. The twist engineered by Miller, a lawyer herself, concerns Comer’s Cambridge-trained Tessa defending men accused of perpetrating sexual violence against women.

Her not-always-admirable superpower is a cutlass-sharp courtroom prowess and understanding that the criminal justice system works against the victim. The law is her accomplice. She cuts holes in women’s accounts with the skill of a Savile Row tailor.

Until, of course, the law is her adversary, after a night in which Tessa’s world collapses, and all of the codes she’s lived by come back to haunt her. The system now humiliates her, with skepticism and harrowing interrogations and threats to her livelihood, her safety, her pride. The contrast between the first and second halves of the play could not be starker. The fragile screen separating savvy high-flyer and bereft sufferer cracks, irrevocably.

I was captivated the first time I saw Comer perform this piece last year, in London’s West End. I was even more mesmerized the second time. The act is prodigious in every respect. Framed by set and costume designer Miriam Buether’s wall of case-filled binders — illuminated from time to time by Natasha Chivers as if they’re sacred manuscripts — Comer unspools Tessa’s nightmare at breakneck pace. A manic energy is apparent, a compulsion to relate the character’s experience with the precision of a member of London’s Inns of Court.

The performance is relentless in the best sense, a portrayal shifting in accent and personality, as Comer is called on to embody investigating officers, relatives, colleagues. Best known for her role as diabolical Russian assassin Villanelle on “Killing Eve,” Comer is a protean presence with a gestural grace and an organic affinity for the stage. You’re beguiled into believing that there is nothing this actress can’t do.

Miller gives us just enough of an incidental primer on the British legal system to make us comfortable with how it diverges from U.S. courts; this principally entails grasping the distinction between solicitors and barristers, the latter being the superstar performers before judges. In popular culture (and for all I know, in real life) their ranks are male-dominated and impossibly macho, invested with the combined egos of heart surgeons and quarterbacks.

The initial exhilaration of “Prima Facie” is feeling Comer channel Tessa’s ebullient spirit in the character’s Souse, or Liverpool, cadences, and her success in defying the expectations of those around her. In a scene at the University of Cambridge’s law school, Tessa is informed that one of every three students will fail to graduate; the incorrect assumption is, due to her background, she’ll be that one. That ratio, though, will become anguishingly relevant later on, after the tables have turned, and Tessa becomes a statistic in a category she’d been too haughty to imagine ever being inducted into.

How apt this subject is for a solo show, even though the stage feels abundantly inhabited. The format incisively illustrates a victim’s sense of isolation — the loneliness of a memory of violation that can wall one off from everyone else. No one truly can share the space where Tessa’s suffering lives. Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s music, in tandem with the sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, provides a soundscape rife with the tensions of a life spiraling down and out of control.

I thought on the first occasion I saw “Prima Facie” that as it galloped toward its gripping conclusion, the impulse to instruct an audience became too transparent. I didn’t feel that this time. What Comer’s Tessa has to say about her experience must be said, and repeated and repeated, until the world has changed and “Prima Facie” comes to feel like history, and not current events.

Prima Facie, by Suzie Miller. Directed by Justin Martin. Set, and costumes, Miriam Buether; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Ben and Max Ringham; music, Rebecca Lucy Taylor; video, Willie Williams. About 100 minutes. At Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York.

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