Their knees are bent, palms outstretched, eyes darting and alert.
The young women of Lady Train, a high school basketball team in rural Arkansas, are training for every possibility on the court — which, in the beloved tradition of sports-powered coming-of-age stories, also means preparing for adult life.
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that in the first scene of “Flex,” which opened at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse on Thursday, all of the players appear to be pregnant. As this tip-off to a slam-dunk New York debut makes clear, the playwright Candrice Jones excels equally in sly, sitcom humor and in the swift-tongued rhythms of teenage and athletic talk.
The lumpy bumps beneath Lady Train’s various fly-casual printed tees (it’s 1997, and the spot-on costumes are by Mika Eubanks) are obviously fake, contraband from a home-ec class. But for April (a tender Brittany Bellizeare), the prospect of childbearing is no joke; she’s been benched since the team’s zero-nonsense coach (Christiana Clark) learned of her pregnancy. The bumper-belly drills are both a protest and show of solidarity.
Threatening that bond is the requisite rivalry between two top players: the scrappy and headstrong team captain, Starra (a glowering Erica Matthews), who is trying to prove her mettle to her late mother, and Sidney (Tamera Tomakili, delightful), an eye-rolling, hair-flipping transplant from Los Angeles who talks smack with a smile. There’s a delicate romance, too, between the even-keeled Donna (Renita Lewis, the show’s subtle M.V.P.) and Cherise (Ciara Monique), a youth minister whose faith is at odds with her desires, and with April’s consideration of an abortion.
Jones and the director Lileana Blain-Cruz (both former high school basketball players) demonstrate a dexterous mastery of the game, not only in narrated action sequences on the blond-wood, half-court set (by Matt Saunders), but also in the pass-or-shoot dynamics that bind these friends and teammates.
There’s even an alchemy to “Flex” that conjures ardent home-team affinity from the audience (whoops and applause escalated in enthusiasm throughout the performance I attended). Maybe that’s inspired by Lady Train’s spelling-bee cheers (“big,” “bad” and “boss” are prominent), or their Aaliyah singalong with the top down on Donna’s dusty-blue Chrysler convertible (another impressive feat of design).
But the special sauce is also in the careful economy of Jones’s character development, which offers just enough detail to inspire curiosity about who these women could become without claiming to know exactly who they are. (They’re teenagers, after all.) Whether Starra ascends to the W.N.B.A., she’ll have to wrestle with her ego. And Cherise doesn’t seem likely to let go of God, but what will happen if her devotion comes to feel like a trap?
That “Flex” manages to garner such interest in its characters’ potential is a testament to the extraordinary synergy among Jones, Blain-Cruz and the cast members, who are as present and engaged in dialogue as they are nimble at the net.
Tropes of the sports genre trotted out here — a betrayed purity pact, competition for scouts’ attention — are attended by the broader considerations that make young people and team sports such fraught and fertile ground. What do we owe ourselves, and at what cost to one another? Why learn the meaning of fairness when life is so unfair? To rebound when it knocks you down, and to savor the moments when it delivers on your wildest dreams.
Through Aug. 20 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Manhattan; lct.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.