In “Extinction,” Gabe McKinley writes what one hopes will be the final boys-behaving-badly play. But this engagingly nasty blast from the past musters enough verve to keep you from comparing it to vintage Neil LaBute — right up until it implodes in the final five minutes. McKinley’s strong point is his dialogue, and actors Michael Weston and James Roday milk the zingers for all they’re worth. But like most of its ancestors in the people-are-awful genre, “Extinction” trips up when it tries to deal with genuine emotion.
Initially, McKinley’s writing seems nothing if not ingratiating. One of the first things he has his main character do is his best Mick Jagger impression. This kicks off the play with a good laugh (short, soft-featured and thirtysomething, Roday is even funnier for being the physical anti-Jagger) and suggests we’re among friends.
Which we are, sort of. Finn (Roday) and Max (Weston) are old pals from an unnamed New York college, who spent most of their time together tear-assing around Manhattan trying to score with as many girls as possible. That’s score, literally: single women were three points, married women, five.
Finn is ostentatiously trying to evolve — McKinley gets a lot of mileage out of his hipster wardrobe, perfectly put together by costumer Gali Noy. “You’re not going to get laid looking like that,” says Max, now a cash-oozing rep for Pfizer. “Unless we happen upon a band of young and homosexual communists. And maybe not even then.”
Finn keeps trying to convince his friend that the change is more than skin-deep — he’s in a relationship, he’s in grad school, he’s starting a family — but Max will have none of it. His mother has just died, and he has called his pal to Atlantic City to party his troubles away.
As various secrets are revealed and harsh words exchanged, Max leaves the room with Finn’s cell phone and returns with exactly enough poker chips to pay off his friend’s school loans. Uninterested in Finn’s protestations of fidelity, Max has also brought along a pair of hookers (Amanda Detmer as the seasoned pro and Stefanie E. Frame as the newbie). It’s clear something serious is up and we’ll have to watch the rest of the play to get to it.
It may just be the impressively nuanced performance from Weston (“House”), or perhaps something McKinley wanted to explore and didn’t quite, but it becomes easy to feel sorry for Max at this point. Here he is in a room full of prostitutes and all he wants is to try not to think about how horribly he misses his mother. McKinley clearly feels something for the character — Max has the play’s best monologue, in which he talks about how surprising it is to age when your whole generation seems stuck in an adolescent loop.
If the playwright had spent as much time fine-tuning his characters’ relationships as he did thinking up “Family Guy”-style racist one-liners for Max (who is frequently a jerk, handily absolving the aud of any guilt while laughing at the uncomfortable jokes), he’d really be on to something.
As it is, helmer Wayne Kasserman has to do a lot of the work for him, and some of the play’s less forgivable weaknesses are exposed in performance. Frame’s novice call girl, for instance, radiates vulnerability, which is called for in the script. She does it so well, though, that we really resent the cheap trick at the end of the show that hurts her character. This involves one of the guys doing something that runs counter to everything we’re told about his personality.
The show takes its title from Max’s thesis that humans must bang everything that moves or risk extinction — an idea that has only a nodding acquaintance with fact, but at least illustrates how he justifies his behavior. Finn loudly disagrees, telling him women are people too, and that we’re more than mere animals. About the latter point, much has already been said, but if women are people — and one suspects they are — isn’t it also objectifying to deny them any power in your play?
A lot of the problems are hidden by the production. Steven C. Kemp’s set is nicely inventive, and there’s obviously some money here — both leads have TV careers, and Dule Hill (Roday’s co-star on “Psych”) is a producer. For all its problems, the play is so funny so often that it’s easy to watch, and easy to see why an actor would want to do it. Ultimately, though, it falters at the moments when it could be exploring uncharted territory.