In downtown theater auteur Richard Maxwell’s musical The Good Samaritans, revived at Abrons Art Center in New York from February 8 to 25, his characteristic style of acting, emphasis on social themes and mythic inclinations triumph.
Maxwell has made a name for himself by leading two companies, first Cook County Theater Department and now New York City Players, producing his own work at venues in New York and Europe. The Good Samaritans toured internationally after its premier in 2004. He also publicly improvised with actors for the 2012 Whitney Biennial.
Whereas actors in almost all theater and other drama attempt to reproduce the emotional content of the text, Maxwell directs his actors to look to themselves and their presence on the stage as the starting point and to give expression instead to how they feel about working as an actor at that moment. This technique can come off as flat, though here the very fine Rosemary Allen (Rosemary) and Kevin Hurley (Kevin), also the stars of the original 2004 production, possess an undeniable presence, despite the apparent absence of affect.
Maxwell’s endearingly improbable story takes place in a men’s shelter, at which Rosemary works. Kevin stumbles in, and over time the two fall in love. Although she is vulnerable and needy in her own way, Rosemary, an evangelical Christian who had some unspecified personal involvement with addictive behaviors, knows better than to be taken in by Kevin, whose self-destructive gambling and substance abuse flow from his blinding narcissism. These background facts are alluded to in shorthand dialogue, but anyone who’s watched a couple of hours of American television can probably fill in the blanks. In addition, the characters speaks at times in long soliloquies, and they break into song, accompanied by James Moore on guitar and David Zuckerman on piano.
The realistic set by Stephanie Nelson, who also designed the costumes and lighting, reproduces the dining hall of this nondescript facility: cinder block walls, acoustical tile and florescent lights in the water-stained ceiling, folding tables and chairs. The only break from this monochrome dreariness is a scattering of suspiciously decorative cerulean chairs in the mix.
Despite the realism of the set, Maxwell treats the production imaginatively. When Kevin goes up to his room or the lovebirds undress and go to bed, they lie down on the folding tables and draw up a blanket. This small directorial witticism is the sweet spot for Maxwell: to focus on illusion and myth. Maxwell’s thematic scope is grand, encompassing the selfless love of the titular Christian parable and the sudden passionate love of two strangers whose circumstances doom their union from the start, like countless other pairs in the Western canon. These powerfully ingrained mythologies make their affair seem plausible, even when the representation of it candidly pokes at its own fabric. When Kevin and Rosemary bed down, it’s over in a flash. Rosemary is still essentially fully dressed in a black slip, and, after a few seconds of humping, she quickly announces that she is coming. The production as a whole is a quiet abstraction of the activities in such a shelter: until the last few minutes of the show, Kevin and Rosemary inhabit this world by themselves.
Rosemary Allen in this production is a handsome older woman, who might have had a past, as she mentions a couple of times. She is past her prime, though: grown thick in the middle, her hair gray and cut short. Her efficient uniform of a gray knee-length skirt, black flats, and a light blue short sleeve shirt does nothing to diminish the effects of aging. Kevin Hurley is short and on the pudgy side, balding, yet somehow still childlike. When he first appears, his face is smeared with dirt. His Hawaiian shirt says he likes to party, and he talks a big game about his glory days of hot girls and deluxe hotels.
Maxwell’s story is emotionally risky. Kevin, acutely self-perceptive, declares that he is afraid of himself. Rosemary states in no uncertain terms that she is offering Kevin unconditional love, the truest love of romance and of her religion. The business-like delivery of these lines stops the violins from playing and keeps the action grounded.
In contrast to the acting, the non-virtuosity of the singing hindered the production. Neither Allen nor Hurley can sing. They were almost always off-key, sometimes quite painfully, like cats in an alley – which could be construed as honest. They also, however, lack the diction and power to project the lyrics to the audience. All too frequently they sang under the accompaniment, insufficiently audible to be understood. The music itself was competent but not interesting enough on its own to remedy this defect.
Maxwell’s style can be off-putting or self-defeating, yet its virtues are manifest in this piece. It helps him dust off the heavily worn structure of the love story and make it fresh. It keeps his work clear of the sentimentality that might infect this tale under a different hand and that might also thereby defeat the possibility of getting close to a couple of characters and a milieu with which, I will wager, many of those in the audience have little familiarity. It also allows for very strong moments to blossom, when the actors’ immediacy on the stage and the dialogue sync emotionally.