Struggling through the trauma of childhood sexual abuse in ‘The Opposite of Love’ at NYC’s Royal Family Performing Arts Space

Written by Ashley Griffin and starring Griffin and Danny Gardner, NewYorkRep’s world premiere production of The Opposite of Love, now playing a limited engagement at the Royal Family Performing Arts Space following developmental readings at A.R.T./New York in 2019, and Theatre Row in 2022, presents a frank exploration of the long-lasting and traumatic emotional, psychological, and social impact of childhood sexual abuse that comes with trigger warnings. It contains explicit language and simulated sex acts (without nudity), along with discussions of assault, non-consensual acts, and suicide, and is intended for an adult audience. With that said, it’s an important subject that, according to recent statistics, affects an estimated 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys (estimated because many incidents go unreported), with 3 out of 4 children who have been sexually assaulted having been victimized by a family member or close acquaintance.

Ashley Griffin and Danny Gardner. Photo by Jeremy Varner.

Griffin’s story revolves around Eloise, a wealthy young woman from an affluent family, who was sexually abused by her uncle from the age of three, has consequently remained a virgin, and hires Will, a down-on-his-luck hustler from very different circumstances, to help her overcome her trauma and to prepare her for an intimate romantic relationship that she hopes for as an adult. Under the sensitive and judicious direction of Rachel Klein, we see their connection grow from her first awkward and nervous encounter with the smooth and charming Will, become more comfortable as they decide to meet weekly for “therapy sessions” at her spotless upscale apartment furnished in cool shades of white and grey (set by Brendan McCann), get to know each other, share their backgrounds (and parallel experiences), have forthright discussions, and slowly begin touching, kissing, and foreplay, until she is finally able to engage fully in sex with him (with expert intimacy direction by Crista Marie Jackson and astute staging by Klein).

Danny Gardner and Ashley Griffin. Photo by Jeremy Varner.

Their conversations address everything from his favorite sexual positions and the most sensual moments they’ve ever had to classic literature, art, and porn, as they gradually switch from water and root beer to real beer and crudités, play a game of Twister (her reaction after he tells her where he got it is priceless), joke with each other and laugh, she begins to dress more casually and he more refined, she adds touches of color to the apartment, and permits herself to cry openly while allowing him to hug and to comfort her, in their progressive character development and cross-influence.

But will her breakthrough result in a new healthy attitude towards sexuality and the potential for love? Will her life-long trauma manifest in different ways in our consumer-based culture? Or will their evolving intimacy and bond grow beyond the commodity of sex for pay (and in her case, very generous amounts)? It’s an intriguing problem with a surprise ending that you won’t see coming, embodied with affecting emotion, insightful psychology, believable shifts in mood (from pain and vulnerability to conviviality and strength, devastation and control) by the outstanding Griffin and Gardner, both embracing the heights of intense drama and bringing three-dimensional depth and empathy to their roles. The compelling performances and direction are enhanced by Zach Pizza’s lighting, with blackouts between the four acts that signal the passing weeks.

Danny Gardner and Ashley Griffin. Photo by Jeremy Varner.

While the content of The Opposite of Love is decidedly for adult audiences, the theme of the sexual abuse of children and its lingering trauma is of momentous significance for all ages, and one that should be seen, talked about, and stopped. Kudos to Griffin, her brave team, and NewYorkRep for bringing it to the stage and generating greater awareness and understanding.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.

The Opposite of Love plays through Saturday, June 15, 2024, at NewYorkRep, performing at Royal Family Performing Arts Space, 145 West 46th Street, 3rd floor, NYC. For tickets (priced at $28.52 for general admission, including fees), go online. Please note the theater is in a restored landmark building, with stairs but no elevator.


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