By Donna Herman
I had a unique experience at Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies. The audience, myself included, couldn’t figure out if the play was over. The actors didn’t come out for a curtain call, and when the polite applause died down, everyone sat quietly. For several long minutes, until one brave young woman got up and dashed towards the door. A low rumble of uneasy laughter flitted through the rest of us as we followed suit and began to get up.
But that was typical of the entire experience. The audience had a hard time figuring out what was going on throughout the entire performance. Oh, we knew the character, Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy) was telling us about an event in her life. But the trappings were so inscrutable, we spent more time trying to figure out the context, then concentrating on her voyage.
The press release quotes a review from the Chicago Tribune about the play being “vibrant, funny, and a little dangerous.” It’s touted as a coming-of-age story by an aspiring short story writer on the verge of adulthood as she journeys through New York City. What neither the promotional material, nor the program prepares the audience for, is that you need a degree in modern drama and English literature to figure out where, physically, the events are unfolding.
Because it’s quite specific. And in this production, it’s particularly misleading. Resulting in an uphill battle for Carolyn Molloy who did a terrific job of imbuing Bernadette with vitality and authenticity. Because the physical circumstances of the set were so anomalous, the audience was uncomfortable and unsure of what was coming.
I watched an 80-minute performance of, essentially, a monologue by a young woman reading a short story that is clearly autobiographical. The playing area of the stage is surrounded by a black mesh curtain. There are a couple of dozen small red boxes with white lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling as lighting sources, and one big red box on the floor that Bernadette opens and stares into, that also has a light coming out of it. At the back of the stage is an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, a microphone and a stool. At the top of the play, Bernadette fiddles with the tape recorder and microphone and makes a few testing noises with it but then doesn’t go back to it. At the front of the stage is a black leather tufted rectangular bench with metal legs sitting on a wolf-skin rug. None of what should have been laugh lines produced more than a titter from us.
WHERE IS SHE? What’s going on? We have no idea, but it’s clear she’s somewhere specific. By the end, I was confused and, frankly, mad. I felt I had been subjected to a test that had been set up for me to fail.
As a reviewer I have the privilege of getting a copy of the script to help me write my review, which I went home and started reading. The stage directions at the top of the play revealed it all. I wanted to strangle the entire production team. From the Director Jacqueline Stone, to the Set Designer Martin Andrew and Keith Parham the Lighting Designer.
We’re supposed to be at Whitney Academy, from which Bernadette has escaped one weekend to go on her coming-of-age trek. In their empty theater on the set of Genet’s “The Maids” in which Bernadette has been cast in the role of Claire – which is a factoid she drops during her monologue. The stage instructions are specific. It’s Madame’s boudoir with “A rococo dressing table with small colorful containers of perfumes, a glass jar of mimosa, a nice comb, and hand mirror, a silver tea pot. A small, richly upholstered stool. Upstage of the stool and table, a bench containing a silver tea set, an old-fashioned, arched radio, a fancy telephone, a bouquet of gladioli. Downstage left, a pouf, a teacup and saucer centered on the pouf. Above the table, an ornate chandelier.”
I’m not going to debate the artistic merits of Mr. Rapp setting the play here. I am going to take the production team to task for making it virtually impossible for the audience to recognize and understand the setting. Thereby making it all but impossible to understand or appreciate what the playwright is trying to say and negating the truly fine work of the actress Carolyn Molloy. Everyone got too cute and esoteric and forgot that theater is a form of communication. If you can’t communicate your ideas in a manner that most of your audience can understand without an advanced degree, you’ve failed.
THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES By Adam Rapp, Directed by Jacqueline Stone
WITH: Carolyn Molloy (Bernadette); Robert James Hickey (Maintenance Man)
Scenic Design by Martin Andrew, Costume Design by Branimira Avanova; Lighting Design by Keith Parham, Sound Design by Joe Court, Movement Director, Aileen McGroddy; Props Design by Letitia Guillaud; Production Stage Manager, Andrew C. Donnelly. Presented by TUTA, Artistic Director, Jacqueline Stone. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street through April 22nd. For tickets visit www.59e59,org or call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200.