To the uninitiated, a play by Richard Maxwell must seem like a wry put-on. Take the dialogue, which can sound like a tape-recorded conversation of not very articulate people—played back at the wrong speed. Virtuoso realism—noting every unnecessary “What happened?” and “Oh my God”—is offset by the way Maxwell directs his actors to deliver their lines in an absurdly slow and deadpan manner. There’s plenty of simmering comedy in these stammering exchanges, though rarely does the author bring the humor to a full boil. So constrictive is the style and so debased the vocabulary that it would be easy to leave the theater dumbfounded by these tongue-tied portraits. Yet Maxwell’s characters never give up the struggle to grunt out their undifferentiated emotions. We may not learn much from listening to their poetically feeble epiphanies, but one has the distinct impression that a yet-to-be-named social reality has been accurately seized.
Maxwell writes about characters who, if they’ve attended college, have attended bad colleges. The majority, however, seem to have barely made it through high school. Here’s a typical exchange from his new play, Boxing 2000: “You wanna go to college ever?” “College? Who’s goin’ to college?” “Nobody.” The setup involves two Latino half-brothers, the younger of whom is ready to pursue a boxing career after losing his job. Jo-Jo (Gary Wilmes), an ex-prizefighter and technical school graduate, wants to help Freddie (Robert Torres) make a name for himself in the ring. As the older brother, he worries that Freddie hasn’t had the advantages he’s had. Though they share the same father, Jo-Jo not only has an education but also the memory of a caring mother—crucial lacks that may explain the stunned look in Freddie’s eyes.
A promoter (Christopher Sullivan), dressed in a white shirt and tie, organizes a fight at the local school gym. He’s out to make a buck, but wouldn’t mind teaching Jo-Jo and Freddie a thing or two in the process. After laying out his “life span theory,” which emphasizes the need to think about retirement money the moment death crosses your mind, he asks Freddie about his own investment strategy. With a faint stutter, Freddie reassures the promoter that he plays Lotto. Later, however, Freddie admits to being disturbed by the promoter’s remarks. Jo-Jo, though, has his own take on the matter. “Nobody takes that long to say something. That’s what college is.”
The night prior to the big fight, Freddie proposes to his girlfriend, Marissa (Gladys Pérez), who looks at the engagement ring and asks if he bought it at Sol’s. It’s not that she’s unmoved by the offer; she merely recognizes the extent to which Freddie is cut off from his inner self. “There’s a well deep inside you and this is what you have to realize,” she says, giving him back the engagement ring. At the start of the boxing match with Old Kid Hansen (Jim Fletcher), Marissa pleads with Freddie not to fight. “You can find something beautiful,” she tells him, before vanishing for good.
The sudden appearance of a boxing ring behind the metal storefront gates (hitherto the focal point of Stephanie Nelson’s sparsely urban set) ignites the action. Of course Maxwell stylizes the actual fight, in which Freddie keeps leaning on Hansen, unwilling to throw a punch, yet unable to call off the match. It’s not until the brothers’ father (Benjamin Tejeda) arrives, shouting harsh words of encouragement in Spanish and English, that Freddie begins to assert himself against his opponent. But this is no sentimental remake of The Champ: Freddie tells his cliché-spewing dad to shut the fuck up, that this fight has nothing to do with him. Still, he swiftly loses his fear of getting hit and takes the match in the next round.
The future hopes of the two brothers, which had previously been as blighted as the city sprawl surrounding them, begin to take on the glow of victory. The ballfield they thought was being torn down is actually under renovation, and Freddie dons the same custodial uniform worn by Jo-Jo, suggesting that boxing may not be his only answer. Maxwell has, in effect, rendered in his totally defamiliarizing style a rather familiar 1950s dramatic scenario. Imagine a traditional painterly subject done by a post-postmodern realist and you have some idea of Maxwell’s theatrical path—his blunted tones paradoxically convey vivid psychological landscapes. It’s a tricky style that in the wrong hands can come off as shtick. But under Maxwell’s carefully askew direction, Wilmes and Torres lend a pummeling authenticity to their characters’ curiously warped lives.