‘Teeth’ at Playwrights Horizons review: A biting satire of religion

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NEW YORK — There’s trouble lurking in the New Testament Village church. What was once a holy ground shepherded by a rapturous man simply known as Pastor (Steven Pasquale), model evangelical teen Dawn O’Keefe (Alyse Alan Louis) and her angelic group of Promise Keeper Girls morphs into a breeding ground for sin.

In their new musical “Teeth,” making its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, writers Anna K. Jacobs and Michael R. Jackson plunge right into this dark world, especially the shame and insidious secrets that preside over it. The show explicitly presents acts of rape and assault that may be difficult to watch (or even read about) for some. But “Teeth” is a brazen, unique, cackle-worthy slice of musical theater, even if, at times, it stumbles from grace.

According to the Pastor’s teachings, virginity is the fastest way to salvation, so young women in this quaint, fictional town of Eden must remain steadfast in the preservation of their “precious gift.” But as the Promise Keeper teens’ carnal urges begin to rise, that pledge of piety becomes harder to uphold. Especially when Dawn’s boyfriend — a basketball star named Tobey (Jason Gotay) — looks that good rocking the jersey number 7 (the Bible’s number of completion) on his chest.

Jacobs and Jackson, as co-authors of the book, cheekily weave such biblical allusions and popular Christian rhetoric into their satirical romp. Jackson — who earned the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for his breakout meta musical “A Strange Loop” — intrepidly pens lyrics rife with shocking rhymes (“My panties are wet / but it’s not blood or sweat”) that director Sarah Benson encourages her ensemble to sing with zealous conviction.

The musical turns the tenets of evangelicalism on its head, mocking the rigidity of modesty and purity culture. Early on, Jacobs’s music even welcomes Christian rock into the soundscape, mixing it with American folk and brassy pop. The result is the kind of simple, swoonful music you might expect from Natasha Bedingfield … if Natasha sang about her loins combusting.

Louis is a great physical comedian and emotional talent here, expertly oscillating between Dawn’s chasteness and her concupiscence; at points, she even grinds on the church’s red carpet floor (aptly dank and decrepit thanks to scenic designer Adam Rigg) as if it will give her orgasmic release. Dawn is so reliant on “the sting of shame in [her] body” as a moral compass that the character finds it confusing when she starts to feel gravely ill, like something inside of her is wrong. And this is when “Teeth” begins to draw blood.

Those familiar with director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 horror film of the same name, the basis for this musical, will already know Dawn’s diagnosis: vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth. For centuries, this mythical disorder served as a sexist exaggeration of the serpentine “evils” we women hold between our legs. With their musical, Jacobs and Jackson attempt to reclaim the misogynistic myth, positioning Dawn as an antiheroine: The fangs only come out when she is raped or assaulted.

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The first few times that happens, she blames herself — a pointed critique of society’s Book of Genesis-old habit of shouldering women with all the responsibility for men’s sins. But after falling prey to one too many lecherous interactions, including with her incel stepbrother Brad (Will Connolly), Dawn’s feminine rage takes over and she transitions from cherubic church leader to murderous siren.

Benson is in full control of it all, steering her ensemble through these tonal shifts — from fundamentalist satire to sobering representation of sexual violence to castration bacchanal. Jacobs’s score races to follow suit, evolving into a cacophony of punk rock numbers that energetically fuel Dawn and the Promise Keeper Girls (at this point, more like the Phallus Killer Girls) on their rampage.

While it’s all raucous, campy fun, one can’t help but crave more for our protagonist. Pastor, Brad, Tobey — these men govern every aspect of Dawn’s inner and outer life. As deliciously triumphant as it is to see her reject their influence, sever members and spearhead “feminocratic liberation,” what kind of woman is she in between that overwhelming guilt and seething fury? “Teeth” doesn’t know. Or if it does, it never opens its mouth to tell the rest of us.

Teeth, through April 14 at Playwrights Horizons in New York. One hour and 55 minutes with no intermission. playwrightshorizons.org.

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