The most eloquent moments in Richard Maxwell’s new play, Caveman, occur in the intervals between dialogue. A woman slowly unwraps a microwaveable frozen pizza; her husband and his coworker eat in self-absorbed silence; the coworker takes a leak in the plastic kitchen garbage pail. If these bits of dramatic business don’t sound exactly revelatory, they assume a bizarre gravitas under the playwright’s deadpan direction. This being a Maxwell play, the characters are also given original songs to express themselves with. The lyrics of these ditties, however, have the prepackaged quality of their boxed dinner. “Baby I love you/Baby I’ll find you,” the woman warbles in her floral housedress. Though the words fail to elevate the sentiment, the sumptuous string accompaniment (violin, bass, and guitar) registers the essential dignity behind her plaintive emotion.
Maxwell’s plays take place in the gap between his characters’ rumbling feelings and their capacity to articulate them. As much as the author enjoys satirizing our culture’s debased vocabulary—from the toxic landfill of pop lyrics to our lunkheaded colloquialisms—he can’t help sympathizing with his characters’ pathetic attempts to verbalize the nuances of their hearts. As comic strategy, it’s the linguistic equivalent of a bull in a china shop. Though even at Maxwell’s cruelly accurate worst, there’s something touching about these tongue-tied caricatures.
The triangular setup of Caveman involves W (Tory Vazquez), a woman resigned to her “wifely” duties; C (Lakpa Bhutia), the brute father of her missing son; and A (Jim Fletcher), a steroid-popping lug who gets the hots for his partner’s woman. More of a diagrammatic sketch than a fleshed-out drama, the piece meditates on male-female relationships from the primal point of view. Modernity, to say nothing of feminism, seems to have bypassed these characters, who occupy a trailerlike set that’s as sparsely furnished as their theatrical situation. Were it not for the presence of a microwave oven, this could very well be the first domestic hominoid drama.
W dances attendance on the two men’s needs, making sure they’re well fed and erotically warmed by her meek passivity and short hemline. Treated like chattel, W submits with mute sorrow, forlorn with her dream of traveling to San Antonio to look for her missing boy. (Vazquez’s eyes are murky pools of defeated longing.) Meanwhile, the two men debate how to best run a frozen-food distributing business, the macho C wanting to maintain the old system, while cocky upstart A advocates something new. Shortly after A relieves himself in the trailer’s only available receptacle (call it a Curse of the Working Class moment), he begins to put the moves on W, which naturally leads to a male brawl. Maxwell stages the fight in a self-consciously clumsy manner, where it’s never clear whether we’re supposed to flinch or guffaw. The cumulative effect of the trio’s conflict, however, is more stylistically beguiling than it is profound or unsettling.
While Maxwell’s intrepid eccentricity never flags, his newest production raises questions about whether he may be running out of ideas. Caveman‘s premise harks back to the ticking-time-bomb theme of married life eerily explored in 1998’s House, the Obie-winning piece that crowned Maxwell king of the young Downtown turks. Boxing 2000 (revived and running in rep with Caveman) further explores retrograde sexual politics in its study of two down-and-out pugilist brothers, one of whom pursues a Neanderthal-like relationship with a girl who wants more from marriage than a grunting bedmate. Maxwell’s women are invariably the locus of his work’s strange poignancy. But as searching and sensitive as they may be, they tend to have the inner resources of a pincushion.
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize Maxwell for not reaching far enough beyond his usual gender shtick. If the newness of his style no longer distracts from his drama’s lack of complex depth, the surface remains as compelling as before. Indeed, there’s always been something painterly about Maxwell—a theater artist drawn to refracting traditional subjects through his uniquely warping lens. Much of his work’s kooky appeal lies in the physical presence of his actors, who don autistic facades in the service of representing our disaffected era. How this aesthetic will unfold over time is anyone’s guess. One can only hope that Maxwell will not be afraid to challenge his now patented vision. A talent as genuine as his can afford to risk reinvention—and must, lest novelty turn to formula.