Rules of Desire– in Contrast

Playwright William Mastrosimone’s 1982 piece Extremities featured a sexual abuse victim (and her roommates) exacting vengeance. His most recent emotionally complex effort sets up a rape scenario, then shifts both intent and outcome sideways in an unexpected and more contemporary way. Close parentheses?

We’re in the bowels of a Navy carrier with nuclear capabilities, perhaps a maintenance room. The ship hums. Straight-arrow Seaman Matt Cotton (Tristan Biber) unpacks an enormous duffle bag. Lifting out an air tube and considerable bubble, he disinters Felicia (McKenna Harrington) smuggled aboard the ship so they can be together during his tour. (He knows men at checkpoints.) She’s in understandably poor shape and more than disconcerted by lack of windows – “portholes.” Several days of pouting silence ensues.

McKenna Harrington, Tristan Biber

Matt has fitted out the room to the best of his ability. There’s a small desk, chair and two single beds (undoubtedly all he could find). Buckets serve as washroom facilities. With 12 hour on, 12 off responsibilities – including securing the area in which they hide – he hopes to spend time with Felicia.

The lovers make up. Matt’s access to the kitchen and the library offer his girlfriend sustenance and distraction, as does her new hobby. She’s not, however, to go on deck unless dressed in Navy clothes, accompanied by her paramour, at night. It’s not clear whether they make it out in the span of the play.

All well and good until the pair is discovered by an officer. Pure military, Alex (Christopher Sutton), threatens court marshal/jail – “you’re a spy in the eyes of the US Navy” – possibly a firing squad. Alex is the most universally hated, sadistic man on ship. Matt gallantly takes blame and begs to be allowed to spirit Felicia off the ship at the next port of call. Isn’t there some deal they can make?

Tristan Biber, Christopher Sutton

You probably know what’s coming. Half a day the 2/10/2 (Felicia) will be Matt’s girl, half a day she’ll belong to Alex. (The point system means Felicia’s a 2 on land, a 10 on the ship, then regresses back to a 2 on land.) With ruining both their lives on balance, agreement is reached.

The rest of the play shows what passes between Felicia and Alex (a surprise), Matt’s assumptions (a given), and the outcome (a bit of each.)

Except for the unlikely root of his sociopathic behavior, Alex is beautifully written. Anger, misogyny, sexual deviance, and military colloquialisms erupt like an AK14. Speeches are terrific, coping behavior striking.

Unfortunately, Director William Roudebush guides Christopher Sutton to manifest these attributes so one-note, there’s no place to go. Alex begins apoplectic, occasionally dips to frustration and ends in literal, quivering sweat, but almost everything demonstrates at the same level. (Body language is excellent.) I’d guess that Christopher Sutton is a better actor than this.

Christopher Sutton, McKenna Harrington

Despite her own peculiar back story, Felicia appears even more one note. A difficult character to play because of armored internalization, we nonetheless need to see what’s going through her mind or, at least, to observe that something is! McKenna Harrington makes the girl obtuse and petulant. Actions arise without indication she’s been affected. The actress’s face is blank, her situation, thus, unsympathetic.

Tristan Biber portrays Matt with credibility, from the get-go honorable, sincere, committed. Having risked everything, we believe he thinks only about accommodating Felicia’s experience. The actor softens in her presence. A Navy man to the bones, reaction to orders despite bizarre circumstances is palpably reflexive. Outrage never goes over the top.

Pacing is good. Tussles don’t go far enough. An interesting piece that deserves better casting and/or direction.

Robert F. Wohlin’s set and Joseph Shrope’s costumes are just right.
Sound is palpably evocative. (Andy Cohen)

Photos by Russ Rowland
Cover: McKenna Harrington, Christopher Sutton

The World Premiere of
Rules of Desire by William Mastrosimone
Directed by William Roudebush
Playroom Theater
156 West 46th Street, East of Broadway
TDF Tickets

About Alix Cohen (790 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.