Wednesday, April 11, 2018

THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES by Adam Rapp at 59E59 Theaters

Carolyn Molloy in THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES.  Photo by Anthony LaPenn.

Adam Rapp may be a highly successful and acclaimed playwright – he does have two OBIE Awards to his credit and in 2006 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist - but his work is not to everyone’s liking.  Assuredly, it is not to mine.  In general, I have found his plays to have been gratuitously scatological and/or sexually disturbing, with an undue emphasis on bodily functions.  And, to my mind, The Edge of Our Bodies, currently receiving its New York premiere in a TUTA Theatre production at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan is more of the same.

The Edge of Our Bodies is the coming-of-age-story of Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy), a precocious sixteen-year-old girl who is confronting all of the crises that a girl of her age might expect to face - and then some.  Her family is thoroughly dysfunctional: her father is directing a television show in Los Angeles where he is carrying on an affair with a stewardess, while Bernadette resides in Connecticut with her mother (who is hooked on Xanax and anti-depressants and who wouldn’t mind having an affair with her South American massage therapist herself); before play’s end, her parents are on the verge of divorce.  Meanwhile, her sister Ellen, a grad student at Harvard, living with her boyfriend in Cambridge, recently underwent an abortion and, at least to the best of Bernadette’s knowledge, “never seemed to care much about it one way or the other.”

As for Bernadette herself, she recently realized that her Brooklyn-based nineteen-year-old boyfriend’s preferred method of birth control – withdrawal at the last possible moment before ejaculation – wasn’t as effective as they both had expected it to be and so she has taken the train from Connecticut to New York and the subway to Brooklyn to let him know that they really should have used condoms (despite the fact that neither of them liked them) and that since they didn’t – well, she’s pregnant.  Unfortunately, when she arrives unannounced in Brooklyn, her boyfriend, Michael, is nowhere to be found and she spends most of the evening with Michael’s father, Wayne, who is undergoing headache-inducing and nausea-inducing chemotherapy treatments for prostate cancer.  Oh, and lest I forget, Wayne’s wife (Michael’s mother) has abandoned her family and is nowhere to be found, although she may be in Costa Rica.

And it all gets much worse.  When Bernadette is unable to connect with Michael, there really is nothing left for her to do but return to Connecticut, which she does.  Before boarding her train home, however, she stops off at a bar where she’s “lucky” enough not to be carded and where she allows herself to be picked up by Marc, a man more than old enough to be her father, who whisks her off to the China Town Holiday Inn where she distastefully (albeit enthusiastically) participates with him in his pursuit of his masturbatory sexual fantasies. Once he has “relieved” himself and fallen asleep, she has no qualms about further “relieving” his wallet of $20.  Then on to Connecticut.

But wait.  Unfortunately, Bernadette doesn’t have enough money to purchase a ticket that will get her all the way home so she contacts her mother who drives for ninety minutes to pick her up in New Haven.  Eventually Bernadette hears from Michael and learns that his father has committed suicide.  Reluctantly she concludes that her relationship with Michael is over too.  But not to worry.  Bernadette’s best friend, Briel, drives her to an abortion clinic and, while she undergoes a couple of days of subsequent pain and discomfort, it’s nothing that can’t be managed through some combination of pancakes, vanilla wafers, marijuana and sheer willpower.

In sum, it is all a consummate mess requiring a greater suspension of disbelief than I, for one, am capable of mustering.  I find it quite preposterous, for example, that a sixteen-year-old girl could simply leave her Connecticut boarding school with neither her mother’s nor the school’s knowledge, take the train to New York, arrive unannounced at her boyfriend’s home in Brooklyn, and remain out of touch with her family and school for the better part of a day, without setting off alarm bells.  And I find it equally incomprehensible that her mother would be so nonchalant about her daughter’s behavior that she wouldn’t mind driving for ninety minutes in the middle of the night to pick her up and, given the circumstances, subsequently wouldn’t even “ground” her.  Or that her school would let her off with nothing more than a “warning.”

Similarly, it is hardly believable that Bernadette would blithely accept the tawdry request of a stranger old enough to be her father that she participate with him in his sexual fantasies – and that no harm would come to her as a result.  Or that she wouldn’t have insisted on being with the boy she claimed to love so deeply in his greatest moment of need when his father committed suicide.  Or that she could be so cavalier about her parent’s impending divorce or her own abortion.

But all of this presumes, of course, that the story that Bernadette has told – the play is, in effect, an 80 minutes monologue – is fundamentally true and not simply a figment of a young girl’s imagination.  Bernadette is, after all, a prevaricator: we know that she has lied to any number of people about her name, her school, her birthplace, her parents’ occupations, and who knows what else?  She is also an aspiring short story writer and an accomplished actress.   Might she not also be lying or fantasizing about her abortion, Wayne’s death, her boyfriend, or her parents’ divorce?

My speculation is that she is not.  I think that the fundamental premises of the play are meant to be believed (difficult as that may be) but I am much less certain about such peripheral events as her relationship with Marc or her casual encounters with strangers on the train.  And therein lie the rubs: if we really can’t tell how much of what we have been told should be accepted as true and how much ought be perceived as a figment of Bernadette’s imagination, and if even that which we believe we are expected to accept as true strains credulity, how then are we to make sense of her coming-of-age passage?