Kaneza Schaal in Richard Maxwell’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Really,” Abrons Arts Center 2016 (all photos by New York City Players) (click to enlarge)

Really by Jackie Sibblies Drury had its world premiere at Abrons Arts Center on March 18. Drury’s work, which has won her many major playwriting awards and prestigious residencies, has been produced at top-line theaters in New York, across the U.S., and in London. The celebrated downtown auteur Richard Maxwell directs this visually adept production, presented by his New York City Players.

Really is about mourning Calvin (Tavish Miller), a photographer, who was the son of “Mother” (Elaine Davis) and the mate of “Girlfriend” (Kaneza Schaal). Drury adroitly blends “present day” scenes between Girlfriend and Mother with flashbacks to Calvin and Girlfriend’s first meeting and subsequent relationship. The actors usually remain in the playing area even if not technically in the scene, occupying themselves with some stage business or watching from the sidelines. The texture of Drury’s play unfolds with great promise. Sometimes the physical action alone can be fascinating, as when Girlfriend loads a conventional 35 mm film camera in the opening scene.

The tidy three-person action is housed, along with the small, 30-member audience, in a plywood box, installed inside the Abrons’ Experimental Theater. Michael Schmelling, a photographer and graphic designer, created the set, evoking a photographer’s studio. He also designed the lighting, which, though minimal, is in many ways the most compelling and original part of the production. Almost all of the show is lit by a pack of concealed overhead florescent lights and/or an adjustable light on a movable stand, such as a photographer would use in the studio. Some sections take place in near darkness. Near the end, the whole structure reveals itself to be a camera obscura, an ancient light projection technique, whose principles contributed to the creation of the modern camera. The dreamily soft-focus camera obscura projections are upside down, the natural result of its optics, but also a further suspension of the world as normally perceived.

Tavish Miller and Kaneza Schaal (click to enlarge)

Kaneza Schaal is impossibly gorgeous, no matter what the lighting, and it is easy to see why Calvin fell in love with Girlfriend. Telling her repeatedly that she is beautiful, he photographs her, though in a slightly distasteful, pushy way. Perhaps deliberately, given Maxwell’s cool direction, there is no sense that these two might ever have had sex. Not an ember glows. Their dialogue offers no clues about what went wrong (or right) in their relationship.

One possible source of friction could have been the racial difference in their relationship, highlighted in the play’s promotional materials and character notes. Calvin is pasty white compared to Ms. Schaal’s enviably smooth, glowing brown skin. But neither Girlfriend nor Calvin’s very white, pearls-blouse-and-jacket-wearing Mother, who looks as if she just got off the train from Darien, makes an issue of race, or anything else identifiable. Drury’s best known play, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, targets racism, though here the issue doesn’t result in perceptible conflict. Calvin’s name could refer to the P in upper crust W.A.S.P., and the character notes in the script label Calvin and Mother as such, but nothing that happens on stage suggests tension over class or religion

Girlfriend is generally coolly polite and, in a couple of brief jabs, blunt with Mother. The two women might be conflicted about whatever happened to Calvin, which is never illuminated, though suicide is implied. No reference to an unfortunate accident or illness otherwise explains his disappearance from their lives.

The actors deliver the lines in Maxwell’s characteristic deadpan. Emphatic, unnatural pauses between lines preclude emotional response. Rarely does the tone stray beyond the conversational. While Drury need not have Mother confess in a third-act screaming match that she locked Calvin in a Skinner box for several years, causing his later suicide, the visual interest of the production by itself doesn’t adequately compensate for the void of both emotion and information.

Elaine Davis and Kaneza Schaal (click to enlarge)

Girlfriend often speaks with a rising inflection, such that her statements are uttered as questions, as in a monologue about her recent distress upon discovering the possible social inutility and solipsism of artistic practice in the face of real world concerns. Summarizing human history, Girlfriend announces her new, childlike insight: “life for most of the people in the world, for most of the people that have ever lived, the lives that they lived were horrible. ”

The story premise of suicide by a despondent artist, a Romantic cliché if ever there was one, might serve as a platform for the iconic. Maxwell has said he strives to portray mythic figures in his own writing. That the two women don’t have names defines them as types, not characters. Calvin, though he has a name, is the standard-issue doomed artistic personality, but why, and specifically how in connection with these women, Drury does not give her characters leave to say.

Really continues at the Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 2.

Paul David Young is a Contributing Editor for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating theatre,...