#MeToo: Art imitates life in Azuka’s ‘Boycott Esther’

Alison Ormsby as Esther in the Azuka Theatre production of 'Boycott Esther.' (Courtesy of Johanna Austin/austinart.org)

Alison Ormsby as Esther in the Azuka Theatre production of 'Boycott Esther.' (Courtesy of Johanna Austin/austinart.org)

Philadelphia-based playwright Emily Acker clearly understands the premise of her new play, “Boycott Esther,” now in a smooth Azuka Theatre world premiere, because she lived it. The Weinstein Co. hired Acker in 2016 to write a TV pilot. When the project was in its final stages, the news broke: Harvey Weinstein, head of the film and entertainment company, was a serial abuser and women were coming forward to call him out.

The #MeToo movement had begun. And Acker’s good fortune — to be hired for the project — was dashed. She was caught in the fallout, with many talents whose Weinstein Co. projects were killed or put on hold. As the press material for “Boycott Ester” puts it: “Acker was left to balance her personal disappointment versus feelings of solidarity with the movement and empathy toward the women speaking out.”

That’s a pretty good description of what happens also in “Boycott Esther,” about a 23-year-old named Esther Lehman (the excellent Alison Ormsby) whose Twitter account attracts about a million followers who admire her feminist, funny and highly personal blog. She’s been hired by Barry Bloom — the play’s Weinstein-like head of a film and TV empire — to create entertainment content from those musings.

And then it happens: Bloom (Stephen Rishard) is outed as a scumbag, in headlines that look very much like those atop the Weinstein stories. Esther is repulsed by him, but she doesn’t quit writing for the company — the company quits on her after she meets with Bloom privately at his request. She empathizes with his plight, if not with him, and writes a blog post called “Forgive and Forget? A letter to my former boss, Barry Bloom.”

And suddenly Esther is caught in a social-media maelstrom; not even her easygoing former mentor at the Bloom company (Alexandra Espinoza) wants anything to do with her. The same internet dynamic that made Esther a web star could now send her back to waiting tables to get by as a writer.

No doubt about it, the currency of Acker’s play, directed astutely by Maura Krause, is boosted by the playwright’s backstory: She knows what she’s writing about. The trouble is, as this compelling play with brisk dialogue and entertaining characters moves into high gear, we don’t.

In the first half, Acker draws us into Esther’s highly digitized world (the video design by Jorge Cousineau is brilliant), and once we’re there, we root for her all the way: She’s a brash up-and-comer, and we can see why her blogs are taking her somewhere good, even if we haven’t read them. That’s because Acker gives us enough to be able to read Esther herself.

But all we know of the blog post that begins to take her life south is the title, which we can clearly see on a projection (as can you, in the photo above). Acker gives us only context — people are angry about the post, yet Esther insists it’s far from a defense of her disgraced boss. What could this bright, fully wired woman write that causes such a disconnect between her and her loyal fans? We never get so much as a quote.

If Acker wants to show that the swift momentum of #MeToo leaves no room for any other side of the story, perhaps she does — but how has she been able to? Without something more solid to go on, we’re left with only the knowledge that the blog post is controversial, but not why.

Yet there’s something very sensible, and sensitive, about the way Acker moves her play forward. She shows us how Esther herself was violated as a young girl, not physically but by words, and to horrible effect. The incident is framed as a play Esther writes to move herself out of the controversy, so we don’t know what’s fiction and what’s actually truth. But in either case, we know the facts, and we’re able to be moved.

“Boycott Esther,” produced by Azuka Theatre, runs through May 19 at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake Apartments on South Hicks Street. (Hicks Street runs to the side of the Drake Apartments, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th streets). 215-563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.

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