Friendship, “Extinction” and Immersive Theater
Friendship is at the core of our experience of the world — it is through our friends’ eyes that we reflect their perceptions and social morays and ultimately evolve, and it is the rupture of that social contract that can lead to extinction.
That’s a pretty heady conception, but it’s exposed with quick humor in playwright Gabe McKinley’s “Extinction,” which the Where Are They Going theater group is bringing to East Hampton’s Guild Hall March 30.
The play, which will be performed in the round on the stage in the John Drew Theatre, follows two college buddies as they take an annual outing of male-bonding and debauchery to Atlantic City, where they realize that their friendship may be on the verge of extinction.
Actor Brynne Kraynak went to grad school with Gabe McKinley, where it debuted as his thesis project in 2009. Ms. Kraynak brought the script to actors Sawyer Spielberg and Eric Svendsen for a class project.
They loved the material, and Mr. Spielberg later brought it to Guild Hall Artistic Director Josh Gladstone when they were working together on a production of “Of Mice and Men” at Bay Street Theatre in 2015.
“I was cracking up when I was reading it. I thought it was really funny and really dark,” said Mr. Gladstone as he, Mr. Spielberg, Ms. Kraynak and Mr. Svendsen sat for an interview in mid-March. “It’s humor where you think ‘this is funny but this is not funny at all.’ It’s horrible and painful. It’s a play that has those extremes in range where it opens you up with a laugh and sets a surface of playfulness, but what’s underneath the surface is this relationship between these two young men who are trying to navigate this relationship that’s clearly on its way out. One of them is trying to evolve and one of them is trying to recapture that memory, that flicker that kept them together when they were undergraduates.”
Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Spielberg brought the play to Guild Hall’s JDTLab for a staged reading last fall. They’d originally planned to do a a full production in-the-round this winter, but ultimately decided on a run from March 30 to April 16.
“This is the off-season for Guild Hall. The house itself seats 350, and if we sold even 150 tickets each night, it would still feel like a very small house,” said Mr. Spielberg, who is making his producing debut with this show, along with his girlfriend, Raye Levine. “If we seated the audience on stage, it would really feel full, even with 50 people.”
The stage can seat up to 75 people.
Mr. Spielberg, Ms. Levine, Ms. Kraynak and Mr. Svendsen make up the cast of this show.
“It’s a great ensemble, and a tight ensemble,” said Mr. Gladstone. “I’m glad to be working with these young actors. They’re doing everything, themselves, down to painting the set.”
“We’re all wearing many hats. Eric, as well as playing the lead, is also the sound designer and is crew on the set,” said Mr. Spielberg. “Brynne is the costume designer, as well as playing Missy. I am the props guy, which is a lot harder than I thought it would be. Raye is coming back from New York City, where she went to pick up a carpet. She’s the set designer.”
They’re all excited to be doing this production in the round.
“The relationships are really intimate, and having the audience right on stage with us is the right thing for this particular story,” said Mr. Spielberg. “I’ve seen shows here done both on the stage and off the stage and I’ve always preferred on the stage. You see the audience reactions, and you feel like you’re all in this together. It makes the urgency increase.”
“This is my first experience in the round,” said Ms. Kraynak, “but even rehearsing it without the audience present, knowing that the minute that you walk out everyone can see everything you’re doing is such a relief because you can really play in that space. You can live in the space because everyone is going to catch everything. That’s such a gift.”
“When you’re far away from the audience, you can get away with ‘schmacting,’ but with this play being so close, you can’t get away with dishonest moments,” agreed Mr. Spielberg. “There’s no room for a false moment, which has been our challenge as actors.”
“We do sacrifice some sight lines issues when we have some scenery on the stage, but the intimacy of being up there makes up for the sight line inconvenience,” said Mr. Gladstone. “The audience will be sitting right on the couches in their hotel rooms.”
“Immersive theater is the most exciting thing, I think, happening in theater these days,” he added. “It also keeps the costs down. This is a young company that is raising all the money themselves. They don’t have $50,000 to put toward the set, like we might be doing in the summer with Alec Baldwin in a star vehicle. This is a $25 ticket and about $11 worth of lumber, so it works to keep it small.”
Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Svendsen, who play the buddies whose friendship is unravelling, said the play is true to their own experience with male friendships.
“It’s pretty familiar to guys who graduate and have to either grow up or not,” said Mr. Svendsen. “That can be tough. That can create drama.”
“It’s a vocal boxing fight, a love story between two dudes,” said Mr. Spielberg. “I think that’s extremely common in our lives. It’s a love story but it’s done with so much spice and sex and jazz.”
“What happens when one friend wants that same level of commitment and friendship and camaraderie and the other friend wants nothing to do with it anymore?” said Mr. Gladstone. “He’s trying to not be a dog. He’s trying to learn how to treat women with respect and be a reasonable guy. But you add a ton of cocaine and a ton of booze at 4 a.m at a casino in Atlantic City and it’s a recipe for danger.”
“There are all kinds of psychosexual connections between these two characters, and then they bring in two women who are down on their luck and these guys have money to burn, so all of a sudden you have sex and money and power involved and it gets really interesting and dark,” he added. “It exposes the id. There’s a lot of meat on the bone there, even with underwritten women’s parts. It’s not a women’s play, but Brynne does this noble, strong job with her character.”
“Its interesting as an actor and as a woman to understand how female characters have to negotiate their individual sense of self compared to the way the men do it,” said Ms. Kraynak. The women do have to negotiate it. Whereas the men are in constant battle for their essence, the female characters are trying to negotiate that essence around the men. I think that’s something that anyone that sees it is going to readily be able to identify and understand.”
“Why is Chekhov a great playwright? Because there are things on the page that are funny and wistful and sad, and then there’s something deeper, which is some kind of truth about the relationship of these people in life,” said Mr. Gladstone. “It’s beautiful and poetic and fleeting and I think, a nod to McKinley, he’s not Chekhov, but he captures that essence of that Chekhovian thing that I love.”
“It ends violently. It does not end well,” he added. “This is not a happy ending play. The play is called ‘Extinction.” It does not bode well for their souls.”
“Extinction” runs Wednesdays through Sundays at 7 p.m. March 30 to April 16, with two 2 p.m. matinees on April 8 and 15. The March 30 and 31 shows are previews. Tickets are $25 ($23 for Guild Hall members) and are available by calling the box office at 631.324.0806 or online at guildhall.org.