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For those New York theatergoers who saw more than one Adam Rapp drama during the Aughts — there were sometimes two or more productions of a Rapp play in any given year of that decade — The Edge of Our Bodies, which is playing for another week at 59E59 Theaters, might come as something of a surprise. This is basically a one-woman show about a sixteen-year-old girl named Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy), who reads to the audience from a journal she’s keeping, on the set of a school production of Jean Genet’s The Maids in which she is performing.
In her remarks, Bernadette talks about fearing a group of older men she encounters on a train. She discusses her boyfriend, a narcissist who has a perfect chest that he is always working on; she tells us that she’s pregnant with his child. Bernadette vividly conveys a conversation with her boyfriend’s dying father, and also relays, in real-time detail, a bar pickup by an older businessman from New Jersey that leads to a random and highly unsexy sort of encounter at the Chinatown Holiday Inn. Bernadette has a talent for making us really see, hear, and even smell certain moments she is describing. She is both a writer and an actress, and a free woman in the making.
Many of Rapp’s earlier plays were about people living in the lower depths, and, as a matter of course, upsetting things happened to them. Bernadette is a relatively privileged young woman, intelligent and curious, and though she admits to longing for something bad to happen to her, she doesn’t seem like she is headed for any kind of trouble. In fact, Bernadette is a fully realized female heroine who sounds like a Rapp character only incidentally. Rapp has truly imagined what it would be like to be a smart and attractive and modern young girl. He has put himself so fully into Bernadette’s headspace that it’s as if he somehow became her without feeling the need to keep her at a distance or make her into any kind of male fantasy.
Rapp’s authorial voice has always been blunt, steadily focused, and grim, and he often asks a lot from his actors, many of whom were made to simulate cringe-worthy intercourse (or far worse) onstage in his early works. Those Rapp plays from the Aughts were typically staged in claustrophobic spaces that made the discomfort of the performers feel even more excruciating. Yet Rapp’s aim always seemed less sadistic than almost tenderly curious: He appeared genuinely interested in what extreme live situations might call up for an audience trapped in a small room with desperate characters. He didn’t want to play it safe, and that tended to bother critics.
In The Edge of Our Bodies, Rapp’s voice as a playwright has matured, even if some of his hallmarks remain. This piece was first produced in 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky, and then had a run in London in 2014, and this current production played in Chicago in 2016. It has been staged by director Jacqueline Stone behind a dark, sheer black curtain that protects Molloy as she reads from Bernadette’s journal and sometimes looks out at the audience to confide in us directly. She is dressed in a schoolgirl outfit with pleated skirt and ankle-length white socks, and the effect is erotic in a way that might not have been allowed if Rapp himself had directed this play. (He has directed his own work in the past.)
This is a real showcase for Molloy, who is making her Off-Broadway debut. She displays understandable nerves occasionally, but mainly Molloy swings for the fences, bringing a bold physicality to the part and reveling in the chances it gives her to shape different stories and characters. Bernadette wants to write short stories, but she admits in a crucial climactic scene that she is at heart an actress who likes to be looked at. She toys around with our affections and tries out her own power, and this works so well because it feels as if Molloy is trying out her own powers as an actress just as Bernadette herself is doing in the text of Rapp’s play.
At the very end of The Edge of Our Bodies, Molloy started to take off her socks and skirt, and my heart sank. I thought, “Oh, no, please don’t make her strip naked and do something deliberately unflattering and Adam Rapp–ish after she has been killing it and making like Scheherazade for eighty minutes.” But Molloy stopped when she got down to her slip, and she put on a necklace instead of taking off anything else. Rapp lets both Molloy and Bernadette leave the stage with all their mystery and potentiality intact, and this feels like a step forward for him as a playwright who can be as honest as he wants verbally without rubbing our noses in the uglier side of our physical lives.