Extremities on a ship best sums up its playwright William Mastrosimone’s adept, if off-kilter, new psychological thriller Rules of Desire, that’s been given a tidy production. In it, a dim 22-year-old U.S. Navy enlistee smuggles his troubled 18-year-old girlfriend in a duffel bag onto the aircraft carrier on which he is stationed. The couple surreptitiously sets up house in an airlock, but their connubial bliss is threatened by the licentious Chief Petty Officer discovering their love nest. Psychosexual hijinks ensue.
Through well-crafted expository dialogue Mr. Mastrosimone spins out his goofy and corrosive scenario during a taut 90 minutes. It is solid playwrighting resulting in an icky experience with compelling flashes, ultimately being an eerie minor entertainment. The bulk of it is taken up with a revelatory and erotic game of cat and mouse.
The play’s centerpiece is Christopher Sutton who offers a raw, commanding and intensely theatrical performance as the unhinged Chief Petty Officer. The animated Mr. Sutton delivers smutty speeches, engages in physical aggression and conveys pathos with aplomb. McKenna Harrington is vividly feisty as the young woman and boyish Tristan Biber is nicely forthright as the young man.
Director William Roudebush’s steady staging yields a smooth presentation. Scenic designer Rob Wolin’s detailed gray-walled battleship set is impressively authentic. Joan Racho-Jansen’s stark lighting design enhances the claustrophobia and has punchy blackouts for scene transitions. Sound designer Andy Evan Cohen’s nautical tones and ominous clanging contribute to the brooding atmosphere. Military uniforms and everyday wear are realized by Joseph Shrope’s fine costume design.
Mastrosimone’s Extremities opened Off-Broadway in December 1982 and ran for 325 performances. It was a gripping woman-in-jeopardy yarn where following violent clashes, a vicious rapist is imprisoned in a fireplace. The three female residents of the house engage in philosophical debates about what to do with him. Farrah Fawcett made a splash in it upon replacing its original star Susan Sarandon, and Fawcett headlined the 1986 film adaptation.
Echoing Extremities’ setup, in Rules of Desire Mastrosimone creates a creepy pulp fiction-style opus with lurid twists and turns that holds the interest.
Rules of Desire (through March 12, 2020)
The Playroom Theater, 151 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.rulesofdesiretheplay.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission