nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
February 16, 2010
In a time when Broadway is being evermore infiltrated by film and television, Gabe McKinley's play Extinction offers a brilliant evening of theatre with some very talented television stars leading the way. I was familiar with James Roday from the USA network's Psych and Michael Weston from HBO's Six Feet Under and FOX's House, and I consider myself a big fan of both, yet somehow I found myself walking into the Cherry Lane Theatre with mixed expectations. Could two television stars really deliver on stage? As it turns out, the answer is absolutely.
Extinction is the story of two friends meeting up for a weekend of old-time shenanigans in Atlantic City, even as they are both entering a tumultuous time in their lives, their mid-30s. Max (Weston) is a well-off drug rep who travels the country, living the wild life, partying, womanizing, and aching for the old days. He is immediately likable and somehow slimy and honest at the same time. Fin (Roday) is his exact foil, a grad student working for nearly nothing in the library at Columbia University, trying to find meaning in his life and attempting to make his new marriage work with a baby on the way.
They are so wrong for each other, yet they are necessary parts of each other's lives. The actors are evenly matched, playing off each other with small idiosyncrasies and mockery of one another. There is no doubt these characters have been through the wringer together. As the events of their story move from light and funny to something more sinister and frightening, neither actor ever misses a beat, projecting active and honest moments that are real gems on stage. When—much to the dismay of Fin—Max invites two women to the hotel room, the energy changes, but it changes realistically, creating four human characters in a room together. Missy and Victoria are portrayed by Amanda Detmer and Stefanie E. Frame. No one in the piece is ever two-dimensional.
The theatre is amazingly transformed into a high-end Atlantic City hotel room, brilliantly conceived by Steven C. Kemp. The conjoined rooms that make up where these characters are meant to stay are divided by a transparent wall, making us voyeurs into the characters' lives and pasts. The vague reminiscence of a college dorm room peeks sneakily out of the far back wall, showing us just how connected to our past we really are.
Wayne Kasserman's direction is so subtle, I almost forgot there was a director at all. Kasserman originally directed this show for the premiere in Los Angeles, and it is clear that he has an understanding of this text that is absolutely necessary for the success of the production. In his director's notes he says, "Our existence is held in balance by our vision and our malleability, and often the influence of others can either hold us back or allow us to move on." The staging is intelligent and smooth, making even the most uncomfortable moments watchable.
McKinley's quick, quippy, almost sitcom-esque script manages to be so true to life that I found myself repeatedly thinking, "I've been in this hotel room...I know these guys, I went to high school with them." With its many intelligently constructed pop culture references it could easily be considered a period piece for this generation, a commentary on aging and the darkness that lies in everyone. Although some of the exposition is a bit extraneous, the lines are delivered well by these highly skilled actors and overall, this is a smart work of realism that deserves a long life.
The message of the play is profound yet incredibly simple. As we evolve as individuals, we cannot completely abandon the notion that there is a time and place for everything in life, nor can we leave the person we have been behind. The rites of passage that our society has created aren't completely worthless. They help us move into new phases of our lives, relieving us from the possibility of stagnation. Yet if the experiences from our past, however shameful they may be, have shaped us into the individuals we are, then to judge those indiscretions negatively is to hate and deny ourselves. A little piece of both possibilities lives in all of us, and neither extreme can bring us happiness.
It is a great gift to New York that Extinction made its way here. With an excellent soundtrack tailor-made for folks in their late 20s-early 40s and performances built to please, this production is a winner that should appeal to anyone who has ever questioned their own choices...and that is everyone.