A 16-year-old prep school student takes a train to New York City, spends some time in a bar, encounters odd sexual shenanigans in a hotel room, and struggles with an assortment of inner conflicts. In 1951, J. D. Salinger turned this scenario into gold with The Catcher in the Rye. But, in the TUTA Theater Company’s abstract and lumbering production of a 2011 play by Adam Rapp, these same elements hold little value. With extensive doses of narration broken only by a few unexplainable affronts of noise and light, The Edge of Our Bodies shares a border with the limits of our patience.
Director Jacqueline Stone has gone out of her way to keep the audience at a distance, despite the very intimate dimensions of the 59E59 black box Theater C. Nearly the entire 80 minutes of action takes place behind a scrim, as if a large net had scooped up the production and plopped it down in the middle of a crowded waiting area. The set itself is a mystery, consisting of an upholstered bench and stool, floating cubbyholes lit by red light bulbs, a large reel-to-reel tape recorder and a wolfskin rug that haunts the goings-on with a Red Riding Hood vibe. According to the script, the set is meant to resemble a school production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, a classic that Rapp references throughout the work, but scenic designer Martin Andrew has drifted far afield.
The play begins with Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy) retrieving a notebook from one of the cubbies. She then seats herself upstage and reads aloud from it, with her back to the audience, for what feels like a long 10 minutes. As if reciting her diary, she describes the gloomy details of her trip to the city while pondering the oddities of older men. Her roommate at school says men get sexier as they age, but Bernadette can only recall those “with jowly faces, potbellies, dyed, thinning hair, baggie, alcoholic eyes, arthritic limps.” When she finally turns around and lifts her eyes from the notebook, there is no change in her delivery, and it becomes apparent that storytelling rather than character-driven conflict is the order of the evening.
It turns out that Bernadette is pregnant and has come to New York to break the news to her boyfriend, Michael, but he is nowhere to be found. She tries Michael’s apartment and encounters Wayne, his dad, a sad sack who is dying of cancer. Bernadette ploddingly describes her lengthy interlude with Wayne, revealing thematic ties to the play’s title; how close his body is to the edge of death, while her own is on the edge of new life. Then Wayne goes to sleep and Bernadette goes to Michael’s bedroom and breaks out in a wild, strobe-light-infused dance that, if not especially understandable, at least provides a much-needed jolt of energy.
With Michael a no-show, Bernadette next tells of her visit to a Greenwich Village dive bar for some underage drinking and the cold comfort of strange men. Soon enough she finds herself at the China Town Holiday Inn with a loser from New Jersey who is twice her age (of course), quotes Bruce Springsteen and has a car fetish. Rapp ends the scene with apparently the only technique he has this time around, having the guy fall asleep, then jolting the audience with a lighting effect and an unexpected burst of disorder. No, Bernadette does not start dancing again. Instead, the house lights go up and a maintenance man (Robert James Hickey) removes half the set pieces, cryptically pronouncing that “all this is gonna be gone tomorrow.” Were it understandable that he was, in fact, clearing away that school set of The Maids, there would have been some faint logic, but as it played here, there was only confusion. In the closing moments, Bernadette clues us in on what ultimately happens with Michael and Wayne and her pregnancy. Suffice it to say that the outcomes are all grim.
Molloy, in her Off-Broadway debut, believably portrays a teen, but saddled with a script full of tales, rather than dialogue, she cannot find enough variation to keep her character from falling flat. Laugh lines come and go unheeded, and tragic circumstances lack intensity. It is telling that the most heartfelt moment of the night is a comical sex act with that Jersey guy where Molloy, for a shining moment at least, seems to become two very different people involved in a hilariously intense discussion. Then, adding insult to injury, she is awarded no curtain call. Instead, the audience is left applauding an empty stage as a haunting Nina Simone tune plays on that reel-to-reel.
The Edge of Our Bodies runs through April 22 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($20 for 59E59 Members) via Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or by visiting www.59e59.org.