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The signature style of Richard Maxwell — a playwright and director who has received awards and fellowships from practically every major theater foundation, and whose rehearsals were presented as a work of art in the 2012 Whitney Biennial — works well in his latest piece, The Evening, now playing at The Kitchen in New York in a co-presentation with Performance Space 122 in a co-presentation with Performance Space 122.
The Evening takes place in a bar and a theater, that is to say, the nominal setting of the play is a bar, but the set design and acting style deliberately provide reminders that the performance is just that, a performance, taking place in a theater. The functional, understated set by Sascha van Riel consists of brown walls and a piece of brown flooring, which are placed well downstage. The two-by-fours supporting the set’s flats are visible, as are the wheels underneath the structure. It is fake and temporary. Likewise, Maxwell is at pains to point out his tricks, as in the unmasking (I won’t spoil it) of a theater effect. When a fight breaks out, it looks staged. The house lights stay on throughout the show, and the lighting onstage is for the most part perfunctory.
The acting style, as always with Maxwell, rejects the emotionalism and illusionism that characterize most American theater productions and the training programs for actors, directors, and playwrights. Maxwell’s actors do not listen much to each other and do not connect with each other or the audience. His actors speak in a generally uninflected, one might say un- or anti-theatrical way, which in the end is its own form of artificiality.
The publicity materials refer to the death of Maxwell’s father during the creation of the show. Apart from a couple of references to loss by a character named Beatrice, this event is confined to a prologue read by her. The text here quickly makes its point, recording the medical details, along with the awkward intimacy and reversal of roles when children must care for parents.
The bar setting and the common folk who inhabit it call to mind other plays in the American canon. In Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman Cometh (1939), which just concluded a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an assorted group of derelicts and dreamers toughs it out in a gritty bar in Lower Manhattan. William Saroyan’s bar-sited The Time of Your Life (1939) similarly allowed the common man to speak, sometimes eloquently. The fighter character in Maxwell’s Evening recalls that other great boxer of American drama, Joe Bonaparte of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1937), who wants to be a concert violinist but first needs to pay for it with his day job in the boxing ring.
Maxwell’s boxer, Asi (Brian Mendes), is a less fortunate character than Bonaparte. Asi, at the end of his career, is looking for money to support a woman and is shooting up steroids to keep boxing. He also displays an impressively horrid sense of fashion; his two-sizes too tight, boldly patterned black-and-white t-shirt is etched in memory. Asi’s companion in bardom is Cosmo (Jim Fletcher), a not-so-recovered substance abuser and drug dealer, who has an eye for Asi’s girl. Cosmo is costumed in a dismal tracksuit of crushed velour, brown like the walls and floor of the set. The woman in question is Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus), who wants to get away. Her hooker outfit, complete with black spangled shorts and a rabbit fur coat, is complemented by her badly frosted hair and garish pink eye makeup. She sums up her character: “I am a prostitute slash bartender in one lonely corner of the universe.” With their insouciant delivery and off-handed disengagement, the three actors impeccably convey Maxwell’s aesthetic.
Beatrice wants to leave. Asi wants her to stay. And Cosmo will go with her if she says yes. We don’t learn much about any of the characters, their motivations or histories. In an interview with SoHo Rep Artistic Director Sarah Benson included in the press packet, Maxwell says that the stock characters are a portal to allow the mythic into his plays. In the last play of his I’d seen, Isolde, this took the form of playing Wagner’s opera and incorporating some of its props and costumes. For The Evening, this suggests that Maxwell’s ambition is to vault his characters and their milieu into a world of unexpected meaning.
Beatrice is a prostitute, a disappointing choice, given Maxwell’s mythic strategy. It made me wonder if Maxwell was caught in time, his archetypes of gender left over from the Eisenhower era. In Isolde, the wife of a rich man was having an affair with the dreamy architect for their new house. She didn’t seem to have much of a career. In The Evening, the female archetype has been demoted from adulteress to hooker. This is not to say that Asi and Cosmo should be hanging out with, say, Janet Yellen, or that Hillary Clinton should pop in for a beer and see how Asi and Cosmo feel about health care options. It is, however, puzzling that Maxwell writes from such a socially antiquated point of view, especially since his politics appear to be progressive.
The set change for the ending lasted so long it was almost an act in itself. There can be a certain liveness to watching stagehands messing around, but Maxwell really plays it out. Nonetheless, there was a payoff in the very theatrical swirl of stage smoke, fantasy costume, and, for once, subtle lighting that created the final stage picture. It was pleasing in and of itself as a visual experience, though I had hoped to be more transported by the cumulative effect of Maxwell’s work.
There is also a band onstage as part of the bar setup, lead guitar (James Moore) and bass guitar (Andie Springer) plus a drummer (David Louis Zuckerman). Their music accompanies much of the latter half of the show. They play soft rock, and all of them sing Maxwell’s difficult lyrics well. The polished musical accompaniment contrasts with the way the acting exposes its own seams. The band’s smooth professionalism can have a nice comic effect, as when they continue to play after a pistol has been drawn.
In a similar spirit to the fractured intrusion of Wagnerian epic in Isolde, The Evening breaks apart as it approaches its climax and operates on an increasingly unrealistic plateau. The dialogue shifts between two different registers. One is cliché-ridden (Cosmo: “We can’t be ‘losers’ as long as we have each other”); the other an elevated form of speech, as when Cosmo says of Beatrice, “You are a reflection of myself that pleases me.” Or when Asi startlingly uses the word “tropes” in speaking to Beatrice, “We live in this garbagey void, of all the old tropes of standing still and forgotten dreams, it’s a . . . masculine world coming from the container, with triangles and tired heroes.” Here the play talks to itself. In a metatheatrical transfiguration, the story and the characters dissolve finally into the white fog on the stage.
Richard Maxwell’s The Evening continues at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 28.