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“Honey, let’s go see the play about sexual trauma, suicide, and addiction for date night” is not a sentence most people would respond to positively. It can be hard to get in the mood to grapple with such intense subject matter when you’re looking for a fun night out. A blanket trigger warning hangs over There’s Always the Hudson, written by and starring Paola Lázaro and making its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and yet it’s hilarious and high energy for much of the 90-minute runtime. That keeps it from veering into after school special territory and makes it an appropriate date night choice.
Lola (Lázaro) and T (Justin Weaks) are friends who met in a support group for sexual assault survivors. On the manic night that the play unfolds, they’re ready to ride or die for each other—literally. They’ve made a suicide pact, agreeing that if after years of therapy they’re both still incapable of having a “normal” sexual experience, they’ll jump off a bridge and into the Hudson River. T is in love with his boyfriend but unable to be intimate, and in the cringey and comedic opening scene, Lola awkwardly persuades her drug dealer to let her go down on him. Feeling afterward that she has nothing left to lose, she decides she might as well get revenge on those who wronged her. As a digital clock overhead counts down the hours until the pair complete their pact, they go on a coke-fueled bender of violent revenge, score settling, and stolen avocados.
The script and the performers walk a tightrope, changing between comedy and tragedy on a dime. For most of the front half, just about any maudlin stuff is immediately undercut by jokes, and when stagehands appear to change out scenery, upbeat music plays, and the characters make the transition into a dance break. Lázaro is endlessly watchable, bringing loudmouth energy to her character while making it quite clear that the tough girl act is mostly posturing. Weaks is delightfully twitchy as T, and conveys his neuroses in every jerky moment of physical comedy, all the while making plain the hurt he harbors. The two have great chemistry and comedic timing together, and convincingly convey a friendship based on mutual pain.
The motley crew of characters they encounter on their journey adds some colorful tone, and scenes with a wrongly accused bartender and a wealthy fitness freak are frantically hilarious even as they threaten to go seriously south for the protagonists. Marilyn Torres is a particular standout as an oddball, shit-stirring, KFC-chomping member of Lola and T’s support group. In the second half of the show, the balance between humor and horror tips toward the latter, and the punches to the gut land much harder when moments before the audience was belly laughing.
Both T and Lola confront their attackers, played by Migs Govea and Elan Zafir. The fact that both actors previously appeared as comic-relief characters earlier in the show adds a mean twist to the proceedings and continues to blur the line between tragedy and comedy. The confrontations are disastrous and lead to both Lola and T hitting rock bottom in different ways. But, spoiler alert: They are both able to climb out of that hole by the time the lights go down. Gallows humor is often a coping mechanism, and in this play, it’s a particularly effective one, since the laughs allow the audience to engage with the trauma of the script without becoming totally worn down. Laughing can be the only way to make it through sometimes, and after a night of being put through the wringer in often ridiculous ways, Lola asks T, “Do I look stupid?” He replies, “No, you look like a survivor.”
There’s Always the Hudson, directed by Jess McLeod and written by Paola Lázaro, plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through June 5. woollymammoth.net. $7–$54.