By Perry Tannenbaum
Anyone who has seen William Mastrosimone’s Extremities, either onstage or at the movies, is likely to approach the playwright’s previous 1979 drama, The Woolgatherer, with a certain amount of wariness. For me, the violence that erupted in Extremities when I saw it at UNC Charlotte in 1991 was shocking – and I’m not easily shocked. The new Citizens of the Universe production of that earlier script often seems to be headed down a similar harrowing path as Rose, a painfully shy and paranoid hemophiliac who works at a dime store candy counter, entertains a grubby long-haul trucker named Cliff in her boarded-up South Philly apartment.
Obviously, there are echoes of Rocky (1976) in this coupling, with Rose’s counter work and Cliff’s corny jocularity fitting the Adrian & Balboa mold. But Rose’s fragility also seems partly inspired by Laura in The Glass Menagerie. As for the seething aggression that we see churning inside Cliff as Rose neurotically fends off his advances, it seems to be rooted in a deep underclass place, the wild soil of our industrial jungle. Cliff’s restless, predatory instinctiveness in David Pollack’s performance reminded me of the fearsome yet inwardly broken Pale in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This (1987).
Yet the drama does prove to share some crucial DNA with Extremities, for Mastrosimone also toys with the idea that the shrinking Rose is as much a predator as the well-traveled and rugged Cliff. So as the story unfolds, and the balance of power teeters, it’s advisable to forget that Pollack himself is directing this tense two-hander. Aspects of Megan Sky’s manner as Rose may strike you as overly directed or insufficiently spontaneous at first. Her arm folding, her cowed bent-over head, and her sideways movements pulling away from Cliff are the most obvious ways an actress can signal that she’s shy.
Then as the truth emerges in Act 2, you may perceive hints from Sky that rudimentary acting may be Rose’s primary weapon. Buying that will likely raise your estimate of Sky’s performance after the previously fleeced Cliff returns, knocking on Rose’s door in the middle of the night.
No set builder was required to provide this sturdy door, for COTU’s newest production is at the unleased site where Carolina Actors Studio Theatre once stood – the same 2424 N. Davidson St. address previously occupied by Charlotte Rep and NC Dance Theatre. Both of the CAST theater venues have now been liquidated, but COTU is actually using the space where Rep and NCDT had their lobbies, elevated above the floor where performances and rehearsals were previously staged, directly accessible from a doorway facing 28th Street. Folks are manning the old CAST entrance on the side of the parking lot, but we found parking less iffy last Friday out on 28th Street.
It’s a much cozier performing space than any that’s been used by the three previous tenants, raw and ramshackle in the true COTU spirit. This corner of 2424 works especially well with Mastrosimone’s raw, déclassé script. The chemistry between Pollack and Sky frequently shuttles between attraction and repulsion, veering more toward extremes when antagonisms are roused. Whether either of these commitment-averse losers could be redeemed kept me guessing until the emotional denouement.