Douchebags in Their Natural Environment

02/19/2010 4:00 AM |

You've probably heard this one before: two old friends from college meet up to indulge the drunken revelry of their youths over a weekend of male bonding, only to discover that one of them has finally outgrown the other, thereby making said substance-abusing all the more extreme and disastrous. Gabe McKinley's latest play, Extinction, at the Cherry Lane Theater (through March 14) after a successful premiere run in Los Angeles, adds some edge and urgency to the familiar story with terrific comic repartee and some hefty dramatic moments exchanged by Finn (James Roday) and Max (Michael Weston). McKinley's extremely funny, engaging and dynamic play loses its footing in the second act, when he adds two female characters to the drama, and the limitations of the promising 32-year-old playwright's still developing skills become apparent.

The entire play (a swift 90 minutes without intermission) takes place in Steven C. Kemp's nearly perfectly tacky luxury Atlantic City hotel suite set (think W Hotel), with a scrim affording a view from Max's room into Finn's. The set's only problem, a strange and underdetermined note of stylization in an otherwise realist outing, is the array of dorm room posters that adorns the back wall of Finn's room. At first barely visible to the point of being distractingly puzzling, this unnecessary detail suggests that the hotel suite's back room functions as a figurative recess, a space where stock-piled memories and regrets loom large. As the two friends re-connect, as their banter moves past jocular humor and into the meatier stuff of bromantic drama, memories recent and distant do indeed come back to stoke the fires of a friendship going up in flames.

Like the situation in which we encounter them, Finn and Max are familiar types in their late-20s or early-30s. The former is a penniless Ph.D student at Columbia living in Park Slope and expecting his first child with his new wife, the latter a successful pharmaceutical company salesman based in San Diego who travels constantly ("250 days a year," as he boasts to his friend). Finn, chubby, shabby, mustachioed, and dressed in flannel and mom jeans, relishes the moral superiority that his modest life affords him, though we're made to understand (not always convincingly) that he also resents the binds of marriage and imminent fatherhood. Max preaches the hedonistic delights of bachelor-dom, expounding on the animalistic, primal inclinations of mankind, though his frenetic pace is tempered too, in McKinley's comic, matter-of-fact way: "Speaking of life, my mum died."

The incredibly dynamic exchanges of razor-sharp dialog between the two familiar TV actors (Roday from Psych, Weston from House) are this show's greatest pleasure, with Weston relishing playing the frantic amoral sensualist to Roday's diffident, slightly pedantic naysayer. Reminiscing about an old sexual conquest who was an actress, Finn corrects his friend: "She did burlesque." "What's wrong with burlesque," Max cracks immediately, "best thing to happen to fat chicks since black guys." The pair's moods, humors, stories and even the secrets they eventually reveal fit right into each other. McKinley, happily, recognizes this homosocial (sub)text and turns it into a joke, with Max asking Finn to settle once and for all the question of whose penis is bigger. When Finn asks, "What, here?", Max snaps back: "What, is it too big for the room? Should I open the door?"

When two female characters come to the suite after the first act's provisional break-up, things proceed more awkwardly. This is partly a result of the tensions at play: Will Finn cave and revert to his old ways? Will Max let up before pushing him over the edge? How much arguing and fighting will these two unfortunate women be able to endure? Are they merely bargaining chips between men or fully fleshed out individuals? In the end the characters Missy (Amanda Detmer, whom some may remember from that classical text of "bros before hoes" philosophy Saving Silverman) and Victoria (Stefanie E. Frame), through no fault of the two fine actors, seem more like narrative devices intended to help push the men to their breaking points—which, in Finn's case, seems out of proportion to the impotence and frustration of which he's been complaining. In these passages McKinley also re-orients the play to be less concerned with a dysfunctional relationship and more with the pressures exerted on individuals by the recession.

It's a change of direction that detracts from the subtleties that McKinley manages to work into the often unsubtle business of male bonding. It leads to hackneyed statements, such as when confident Missy stares out at the audience and tells the in-over-her-head Victoria with thesis-statement gravity: "You'll find there's not a lot of dignity in survival." True though this may be, it's not Extinction's most salient or well-articulated lesson, and thankfully the play's enduring moments remain its best punch-lines and quips. In those passages, of which there are plenty here, McKinley makes an engrossing case for the preservation of the much bemoaned bromance species.

(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)