So often the trouble with a play-turned-movie is that the screenwriter and director have fooled with the original too much—opened it up too much, added too many new characters and too many new scenes. In the case of William Mastrosimone’s Extremities, however, the problem lies in the fact that he and director Robert M. Young didn’t open it up enough. Problems the play had with coherency and logic even when it was on Broadway have not been corrected, and they’re big enough so that this movie about rape doesn’t even succeed in being harrowing.

Extremities opens with Joe (played by James Russo) stalking Marjorie (Farrah Fawcett: both created these roles in the Broadway production) in a mall parking lot. He attacks her in her car, and she only just escapes. Unfortunately, he has her wallet and so knows her name and address, and though she is sure he’ll come back after her, the police cannot, of course, give her any protection. She changes her locks and pulls her dresser in front of the French windows in her bedroom, but it’s to no avail; one sunny summer morning Joe just walks in the open door.

It’s all pretty much rape-movie boilerplate, and watching Joe play Marjorie on the line, I know I’ve seen it all before. There’s the usual violation of her personal life and possessions—Joe asking pointed questions about her friends, because he’s stolen her letters and so knows their names; fingering a music box that seems to have a picture of her grandmother on it, and so presumably is dear to her; then raiding her underwear drawer for the pair he wants her to wear. And there’s the inevitable failed escape attempt by Marjorie, after which Joe says, predictably, “So. I can’t trust you.”

For all that, much of this is old hat; up to the moment Marjorie attacks Joe with the bug spray and ties him up with the phone cord, the movie is well-paced and well-acted. James Russo gives a good performance the whole way through, and Fawcett does well in these early scenes. But both are hampered by a poor script, and what ability Mastrosimone has is for action scenes, not discussion and denouement. By the time Marjorie gets Joe locked up in a makeshift jail in the fireplace, it’s Mastrosimone who’s in extremis. He can’t seem to figure out what to do with his main character.

At some moments she seems insane—after all, she’s been attacked twice by a rapist who just finished knocking her around her own house for an hour and nearly killed her. It would make sense, in a twisted way, if she did go crazy. But she doesn’t, even though she is determined for a while to kill Joe. Given the circumstances, that’s understandable; as Joe points out himself, there’s no evidence of rape since it didn’t happen (she blinded him with bug spray just in time), and even if she could get a conviction on her word alone, he wouldn’t be in jail long. As soon as he got out, he tells her, he’d return to kill her. If someone said that to you, you’d consider burying him next to your tomatoes, too.

She starts the grave and then abandons it, and starts and abandons all her arguments as to why she hasn’t called the police and is keeping this man hog-tied in her living room. Finally, all that’s left is the necessity she sees in getting him to confess in front of her roommates (who by then have returned) so that she has “proof” he did attack her. But even that doesn’t make much sense. Surely any lawyer could argue, and persuade a judge and jury, that a confession got under duress is no confession at all, and here lay poor old Joe trussed up, blinded and halfpoisoned by bug spray, terrified of some crazy woman who wouldn’t take him to the hospital until he confessed to something he now swears on his mother’s good name he didn’t do.

Nor can Fawcett patch up with her performance all the holes Mastrosimone has left in her character. She is terrific as the victim, but can’t make the transition to victimizer. It’s not hardness she’s lacking, it’s intensity. Fawcett just can’t pull it off; her fury rings hollow, and the night I saw it the audience even laughed at some of her angriest lines.

It’s not that Mastrosimone should have transformed his play into an “issues” piece and had his characters come up with a discussion along the lines of the Bernie Goetz debate. But once Mastrosimone gets his characters to the point where they’ve switched roles, Joe inside in the fireplace and Marjorie outside, he can get no farther. Marjorie, who must carry the movie, dissolves into a muddy characterization. In what seems to be a lastditch effort to get the ball rolling again, Mastrosimone brings the two roommates home. But both of them are so shallowly drawn (and, in the case of Diane Scarwid as Terry, so badly acted), they only make things worse. Only James Russo’s ability to act and his character’s breakdown save the end of the movie.

In real life, which seldom imitates Shakespeare, a situation like this one might be played out just as Mastrosimone wrote it, with nobody being able to articulate her fears or intentions, nobody making much sense. But the job of a theater piece is to distill life, to be realistic and still improve on the usually banal reality, or what’s the point? If people in the audience wanted to experience one of those endless, going-nowhere arguments, they could have stayed home and discussed Friday night curfews with the kids. People will go to see a play about rape, madness, violence, and hate only to get some enlightenment into the whys and wherefores of those things. With Extremities, they’re not going to get it.


[Extremities; written by William Mastrosimone; directed by Robert M. Young; Atlantic Entertainment Group]