Review: “Flex” hits the right beats on and off the field

Their knees are bent, their palms are outstretched, their eyes are wide open and alert.

The young women of Lady Train, a high school basketball team in rural Arkansas, train for all odds on the court–which also means, in the beloved tradition of sports-powered coming-of-age stories, preparing for adult life.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that in the first scene of “drape,” which opened at Mitzi E. Newhouse at the Lincoln Center Theater on Thursday, it looks like all of the female players are pregnant. As this allusion to the New York debut demonstrates, playwright Candace Jones excels equally in sly humor and slapstick and in the fast-paced cadences of talk about teens and athletes.

The lumpy bumps beneath Lady Train’s various casual print T-shirts (1997, topical fashion by Mika Eubanks) are clearly fake and smuggled out of the homey category. But for April (a tender Brittany Pellizzi), the prospect of childbearing is no joke; She’s been sequestered ever since the team’s coach (Christiana Clarke) learns of her pregnancy. Abdominal exercises are a protest and a show of solidarity.

Threatening this bond is the requisite rivalry between two big players: the impulsive and headstrong team leader, Starra (a flamboyant Erica Matthews), who tries to prove her strength to her late mother, and Sydney (Tamera Tomakele, delightful), a LA hair transplant who flirts with a smile. There’s also a delicate romance between model-girl Donna (Renetta Lewis, best actress in the show) and Cherise (Ciara Monique), a youth minister whose faith conflicts with her wishes, and with April contemplating an abortion.

Jones and director Liliana Blaine Cruz (both former high school basketball players) display a masterful mastery of the game, not only in the narrated action sequences on the blond wood, half-court (by Matt Saunders), but also in the passing or shooting dynamics that bond these friends and teammates.

There’s even an alchemy in “Flex” that evokes an intense closeness with the home team of the audience (boilings and applause in enthusiasm throughout the performance I attended). Perhaps this was inspired by the spelling bee’s chants of Sir Train (“big,” “bad,” and a prominent “boss”), or the roof-down Aaliyah Singalong on Donna’s dusty blue Chrysler (another remarkable feat of design).

But the special sauce also lies in the careful economics of Jones’ character development, which offers enough detail to inspire curiosity about who these women could become without claiming to know exactly who they are. (They are teenagers, after all.) Whether or not Starra makes it to the WNBA, she’s going to have to wrestle with her ego. And it doesn’t look like Cherise will give up on God, but what will happen if her devotion becomes like a trap?

That Flex has garnered such interest in its characters’ potential is a testament to the extraordinary synergy between Jones, Blaine Cruz, and the cast members, who are as present and engaging in dialogue as they are network wit.

Orbits of the sporting kind fall here—a traitorous purity pact, a contest for Scouting’s attention—attended by broader considerations that make youth and team sports a fraught and fertile ground. What do we owe ourselves, and at what price to each other? Why do we learn the meaning of justice when life is so unfair? To get refreshed when you get fired, and to savor the moments when your wildest dreams come true.

through August 20 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, Manhattan; Show duration: 2 hours and 15 minutes.