Tuesday, April 10, 2018

199 (2017-2018): Review: THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES (seen April 6, 2018)

“Sour Sixteen”

The small space for Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies in Theater C at 59E59 Theaters is arranged by designer Martin Andrew in three-quarters-round style, with two or three rows around an acting area enclosed with a scrim, the way a curtain surrounds a hospital bed. Over a dozen small boxes, each with a red light, hang at different lengths from the ceiling.

Carolyn Molloy. Photo: Anthony LaPenna. 
It’s too dark to make out what’s in the room, other than a black, backless, leather bench on which a teenage girl, vaguely visible in her prep school skirt, jacket, and long white socks (costume by Branimira Ivanova), sits and begins reading from her notebook.

Very gradually, as Joe Court’s humming sound design fills the space, the murkiness lighting (designed by Keith Parham) gradually dissipates and we see 16-year-old Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy) within the set of a school production of Genet’s The Maids, for which she’s been auditioning. (The Maids? At boarding school?)

The story she’s reading is a noirish, autobiographical one in which Bernadette, having cut her classes, recounts a heart of darkness journey from New England to New York to find her 19-year-old boyfriend, Michael, and tell him of her pregnancy.

Given the context of Genet’s The Maids, a play about role-playing and the confusion between fiction and reality, and Bernadette’s mention of her heroine’s ambition to write short stories, one could surmise that what she’s reading is as likely to be truth as imagination, or a combination of both.
Carolyn Molloy. Photo: Anthony LaPenna.
The 80-minute play is essentially a solo-piece during which Bernadette, who is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, narrates the action in the first person, present tense, as in these opening lines: “I’m on the New Haven platform for the train to New York. There are three men who are taking turns staring at me.” Sometimes holding the notebook, sometimes not, sometimes speaking to no one in particular, sometimes directly to us, she acts out her story, moving about, assuming different positions, and barely changing her voice—with one exception—for the different characters.

Midway through, an odd maintenance man (Robert James Hickey) breaks the mood by flipping on the bright lights. He cleans up, turns down the lights, and departs, leaving Bernadette to recapture the earlier atmosphere and finish her story. His presence serves to remind us of the theatrical circumstances in which the story is being told.

Bernadette’s story is not what you’d expect to hear from a well-to-do, 16-year-old prep school girl. With a world-weary attitude suggestive of the booze and cigarette-tinged pages of a James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett novel, she uses vivid, occasionally cynical images (“The old man has a face like a wet Kleenex”) to record the sights, sounds, and smells of her experiences. The physical details she describes can be intricate, down to the hairs on one man’s chest or the smoothness of another’s. She even makes us privy to the smell of a man’s ejaculate.

Mingling snarky zingers with her narrative, she describes the train passengers, her teachers, her school friends, her drug use, her estranged parents, Michael’s cancer-ridden father, her auditions, the sex she has with an older man who picks her up at a bar, and abortions.
Carolyn Molloy. Photo: Anthony LaPenna.
She also informs us of the sense she begins to share with Michael’s father of somehow being outside her skin. In his words: “Lately I feel like I can get outside my body. Barely outside of it. Just beyond the edge of what we know. Where the skin . . . contains us I guess would be the best way to describe it. Just past that limit. . .  I can get to that place and just sort of float there.”

The prolific Rapp (Wolf in the River) captures the alienated, bored mindset of this old-before-her-time teenager but his play, originally seen at the 2011 Humana Festival in Louisville, never comes to life as drama. This production, directed by Jacqueline Stone, and produced by Chicago’s TUTA Theatre, which staged it there in a garage two years ago, does what it can to make what is essentially the reading of a short story theatrically interesting; it fails, though, to cross the threshold from literature to theatre. Late in the play, when a shaggy wolf skin appeared, I thought at once how much the story resembled another shaggy animal.  

Molloy does a quite decent job of portraying Bernadette but, for all her intelligence and effort, is never fully convincing. The task is a big one, even beyond having to memorize all those lines. Too often, partly because of Rapp’s literary style, the words sound like they’re being read rather than expressed as natural memories. Moreover, Molloy’s clearly no 16-year-old; her vocal and physical maturity deprive the grown-up sentences of the disquieting effect that might be produced by hearing them pour forth from a more innocent-sounding voice.

The Edge of Our Bodies has some edgy values but not enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.


59E59 Theaters/Theater c
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through April 22