Richard Maxwell likes to call his plays musicals, "just to piss people off." "That's not a reason to do theater, Rich," actor Yehuda Duenyas tsks. "But why aren't they musicals?" counters Maxwell, whose curiously flat creations bear little resemblance to Showboat schmaltz. "Because I don't have a pit orchestra?"
The same "why not" stance applies to the way the 31-year-old writer-director looks at most aspects of theater, including the set. For his upcoming House, the rehearsal space a damp basement in Midtown, its principal features a pay phone and a white plaster wall will be painstakingly replicated onstage at P.S. 122, where the play opens November 19. "I think writer Jim Strahs said it best," Maxwell recalls. "He said, 'What is a set? A set is a place. Well, what's wrong with this place?' "
What Maxwell calls the "profound stupidness" of that argument brings snickers from his cast Duenyas, Laurena Allan, John Becker, and Gary Wilmes as they lounge in the fluorescent dankness of their cellar, now littered with Fat Sal's takeout. While there's a definite insider feel to the close-knit group, who first performed House at the Ontological last June, Maxwell's brand of experimental theater is refreshingly user-friendly. "If my style is anything, it's anti-style," he says. "It's about coming as close to neutrality as you can. I'm not interested in the autobiographical, the personal, or the emotionally invested. I'm interested, as an audience member, in being able to project whatever I want onto a piece of theater. So the challenge as an artist is to make choices that don't flavor what you're doing in a way that's didactic. It's about resisting a point of view."
In a paper-doll performance landscape where the actors speak without comment, stare without intent, and move matter-of-factly along straight lines, House tells the story of murder in a mundane suburban family. Faced with a blank canvas, the question for each audience member becomes simply "What do you see?" Perhaps the distance between words, the gap between impulse and thought. In Maxwell's Theater of Downtime, each moment carries equal weight, not because of an effort to do uniformly, but because of an effort to not do, to add nothing. An act of murder becomes as important as serving toast, a question like "How come you never tell me your emotions?" as charged (or uncharged) as "Why are you all buttery?" As Duenyas puts it, "there's almost nothing make-believe about it. In a sense, there's no suspension of disbelief, because what you see onstage is what's happening onstage."
Since moving to New York in 1994, Maxwell has directed his plays at the Ontological, the Kitchen, HERE, and the Williamstown Theater Festival, and he's generally pegged as a Downtown name worth dropping. In particular, it's hard not to buzz about his frequent use of novice actors, from House's 11-year-old Becker to the robot delivering prizes in A-1 Steak Sauce, Maxwell's last project. "They bring a performance vocabulary to the stage that is unknown," he explains. "They're following a different set of rules. If you've seen a lot of plays, you know what the parameters of an actor's performance will include and not include. Nonperformers bring a different palette."
A Midwesterner with a mild but intense manner, Maxwell began developing his theatrical anti-style in 1992, in a 3000-square-foot loft space in Chicago's postindustrial South Loop where he and several actors founded the Cook County Theater Department. Their premiere production, Oklahoma! gone anarchistic, was met with unexpected giggles. "I don't know how we could have thought otherwise," Maxwell says. "How else would you react to a deconstruction of Oklahoma!? It's a funny idea. Somehow we had forgotten that over nine months of philosophizing."
Today, philosophizing is a mixed bag for Maxwell, who with equal agility discusses the intricacies of his "ridiculously spare" vision and dismisses such discussions as overly intellectual. "I hate that, what I just said" he catches himself talking mental imagery. "It sounds highly esoteric. More important, it becomes about task. That's where the neutrality comes into play, because it's simply 'What do you have to do?' You have to get onstage. And then you have these lines to say. And then you move over there and have a couple other things to say and walk back. And isn't it funny these people are watching you? It's that constant acknowledgment of the immediate and the now."
In the final moments of House, Duenyas presses "Play" on a hand-held cassette recorder and, accompanied by some slow, static-strewn heavy metal, sings to Allan, "I'll be missing you, Baby, when I'm out with the boys. Or I'm hangin' with my lady friends. It gets so lonely when you're on that road. It gets so lonely when you're all alone." His deadpan delivery stings with icy sobriety, gut-wrenching something authentic from musical cliché. "I'm curious to see how far you can push the limitations," Maxwell muses. "If you're saying these words and not trying to attach some personal psychology to them, what else is there? You compress something so much, it's inevitable you're going to create some kind of combustion."
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.