After a welcome detour through RENT, the Vexler continues its baffling retrospective of minor American plays with William Mastrosimone’s Extremities, best known as a vehicle for Farrah Fawcett in both its off-Broadway and cinematic incarnations. There might be some historical interest in presenting this early ’80s revenge fantasy — it’s like the sexual-assault version of Nine to Five — but as a plausible or insightful drama, Extremities has limited virtues. Directed at breakneck speed by Chelsea Fry, the Vex’s handsome production manages to mask some, but not all, of the play’s flaws; it’s thus an occasionally entertaining, but ultimately hollow, evening of psychological intrigue.
On its face, the evening’s conceit is an arresting one: a potential rapist, Raul, finds himself the prey after his attack on an intended victim, Marjorie, goes awry. Having turned the tables on the intruder, Marjorie herself ventures into some dubious ethical territory as she proceeds to poke, scald, lacerate and otherwise torture the howling Raul, now imprisoned in her fireplace. The arrival of two roommates, Terry and Patricia, complicates matters: Will they side with Marjorie in a gesture of grrrl power? Or will they do something crazily responsible, like notify the police? There is, apparently, no middle ground: As Marjorie snarls in the Act One closer, “From now on, I make my own law!”
You can tell where this is going: One mark of civilization is the compact of law, and Marjorie’s rejection of it indicates, at a fundamental level, her jaundiced view of American jurisprudence when it comes to sexual assault. It’s a viewpoint, and a plot twist, that I actually find intriguing, even as Marjorie descends into savagery. Other audience members may be able to look past the play’s various plot contrivances, but I frankly found them to be insurmountable. For a psychological thriller to work, the mechanics need to be spot-on, and too much of the play simply rings false. Sometimes it’s just the little things: For instance, the women are forever telling Raul to shut up — it’s something of a leitmotif — but it never occurs to any of them to actually gag him. (I mean, they’re OK with crucifying him, but a cloth gag is somehow beyond the pale. That might retard the runaway plot.) In particular, the second act is full of melodramatic revelations that beggar credulity and which sap the play of any believability.
And without a sense of psychological realism, what’s the point of a psychological thriller? Yes, there are indeed thrills to be had; the first 15 minutes — that is to say, Raul’s super-creepy attack on Marjorie — are theatrically gripping, especially as staged in the intimate space of the Vexler’s black-box theater. But then there are all the dubiously motivated stage actions, from Marjorie’s inexplicable decision to put on stockings before escaping her rapist (surely, the socks could wait) to Terry’s bizarre “alone time” with nail polish and a good novel. (Yes, such actions characterize Terry as jaded and flighty, but at what cost to plausibility?) Worse, both Tracy Hungate (as Patricia) and Alyson Miller (as Terry) are saddled with heavy-handed second act speeches about the causes and consequences of rape; try as she might, neither actress can create a fully rounded character from her thinly sketched role.
Jeffrey Dorman gets by far the play’s juiciest part. Raul’s a sociopathic motor mouth who gleefully points out the myriad ways in which the law courts are stacked against female victims of rape. Though Dorman’s performance as an attacker seems a bit forced, he makes for a deliciously insouciant and malevolent prisoner, whose onslaught of words is nearly as damaging as his onslaught of fists. Mindy Feedham’s Marjorie starts off suitably meek but nicely finesses a metamorphosis into a ferocious vigilante, striking a blow for oppressed women everywhere.
Some audience members cheered and otherwise exhorted Marjorie on her quest for vengeance, but — as is clear — I simply couldn’t get past the preposterousness of the plotting. (Eve Ensler’s “My Vagina Was My Village,” from The Vagina Monologues, is a far more moving piece of theater about sexual assault, precisely because it’s so palpably real.) If only all of the obvious talent on display at the Vexler had been channeled into a superior vehicle. For all of its good intentions, Extremities ultimately smacks of contrivance — to the extreme. •
Through Sep 12