The Molotov Theatre Group’s staging of “Extremities” begins with a suitably horrifying image of the classic rape scenario. Sherry Berg, the actress playing the victim, Marjorie, is petite. Alex Zavistovich, as the assailant, Ray, is large. The District of Columbia Arts Center stage is tiny: Ray blocks the set’s only door out. You fear the worst.
Putting audiences through the agony of a sexual assault has always been the aim of William Mastrosimone’s well-known, frequently revived drama. The point is to ask: What next? How can the victim possibly get justice?
In the early 1980s, “Extremities” worked as consciousness-raising for a culture that misunderstood and drastically underreported rape. (Susan Sarandon, in the early stages of a consciousness-raising career, starred in the New York production.) But it’s also a vigilante show. It’s no spoiler to say that Marjorie quickly manages to turn the tables and soon has Ray chained up in her fireplace, where she is maybe a little too eager to take her vengeance.
“I want the world to see the position of women in society,” Mastrosimone said in a 1983 New York Times article. “They’re really in trouble.”
The cultural messaging on rape has improved since then, but the violence hasn’t stopped. There is no end of names that may surface in audiences’ minds (Elizabeth Smart, Ariel Castro, etc.) as Berg and Zavistovich struggle.
Yet after an appropriately unsettling start, director Michael Wright’s production is worryingly dispassionate. As the barely dressed woman whose home is invaded, Berg is almost unflappably tough. The cool, sadistic way she kills and then scalds a wasp at the top of the play suggests that Marjorie’s impulses are going to be on trial here at least as much as Ray’s horrific actions will be.
Giving Marjorie a preexisting mean streak seems to undo Mastrosimone’s point. It feels extraordinarily retrograde to blame the victim at all, although that’s always been a trap in the script as Marjorie goes bananas after the attack.
We witness Ray’s terrifying brutality, and Zavistovich hits the mark in his ugly portrayal, laying on a thick New Jersey accent and putting bite into the foul-minded threats. Berg, though, never really panics and doesn’t seem to change much in this fateful day. Neither does Jennifer Osborn nor Alexia Poe, as Marjorie’s housemates, once they enter and see this strange man being tortured in their hearth.
So even though Ray’s guilt is never in doubt, this production doesn’t give the initial crime and the subsequent lack of legal protection enough weight to make Marjorie’s extreme reaction seem like the only way out. “Extremities” has long been compared to vigilante fare such as “Death Wish,” and you have to wonder what this 90-minute play was like when it ran more than two hours, before Mastrosimone edited it in the early 1980s and cut out “speeches against society and lawyers,” as he said at the time.
No such clarifying speeches here. Instead, director Wright bookends the show with His ’n’ Hers misfit anthems — Radiohead’s “Creep” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” — while the warriorlike Berg plays Marjorie like a psychopath waiting to be triggered. Mastrosimone leveled the playing field to make you think about our cultural shortcomings. Molotov, on the other hand, narrows its aim and makes “Extremities” an uncomfortably fair psychological fight.
by William Mastrosimone. Directed by Michael Wright. Lights, Matt Vossekuil. About 90 minutes. Tickets $25. Through Nov. 3 at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. Visit molotovtheatregroup.org.