“I’ve never left you,” says a mother to her grown son in Drummer Wanted, “and now you won’t leave.” Returning to ever fertile territory in his new musical, Richard Maxwell strips more layers of explanation from the Freudian family romance, shining light on the humiliation and fury usually reasoned out of sight by psychologizing playwrights. Few characters in contemporary drama are as exposed as Maxwell’s. As if to compensate for their nakedness, they engage one another aggressively, even when their voices and faces fall slack, until they rupture his theater’s deceptively banal surface. Here, parent and child rehearse the inevitable subjects when the latter overstays his welcome—privacy, employment, taking out the trash—but such familiar exchanges are rendered volatile by the speakers’ unselfconscious obsession with one another. Only in Maxwell’s songs does this pressure find a valve. The pair’s full-throated appeals for loyalty—”I feel so helpless when you’re not around”—lead Drummer Wanted from affectlessness to a graphic expression of need. (A progress that also changes the way we hear the play’s title.)
More disarming than anything the characters sing is how quickly the play recovers its poise when the music ends. As the mother-son relationship retreats from the brink of candor, Maxwell makes strong drama from lives accustomed to futility. Here is a world able to absorb all shocks yet doomed never to change. That fate is partly situational. Drummer Wanted itemizes the frustrations facing an amateur musician, Frank (Pete Simpson), after he is hit by a car. Lying on the floor with his leg in a brace, his nearby drum set a constant taunting presence, he awaits his personal-injury settlement and withstands his mother’s ambivalent caretaking. The pair seems trapped in Angela Moore’s pitch-perfect set—a windowless room, its paneling, wall-to-wall carpeting, and vinyl-covered chairs unmarked by anyone’s personality. Even when the narrative takes the characters out for a drive or to a karaoke bar, the unchanging decor makes them stay put.
Like Maxwell’s circular dialogue and the waiting game of his narrative, the room enlarges the significance of events that would be lost in a busier landscape. It also becomes a platform for the characters to launch themselves beyond their diminished expectations. The relentlessness with which Frank stares at his mother, as if hoping to dissolve her prim composure, or his hobbyhorse rocking from one leg to the other, revving up for a race that never begins, discloses ambitions the text works to restrain. Mother (Ellen LeCompte) fills in her own character as she taps one foot overcarefully during her songs, only there confessing how much she hopes to maintain equilibrium around her restless son. At one point, she even tries, without success, to drown out Frank’s violent drumming by playing Bach on the piano.
Both actors’ voices likewise suggest complexities in their relationship beyond what is expressed in their language. LeCompte rarely varies her pleasant tone—a choice that adds depth to her single admission of sadness. Simpson emphasizes unexpected words, turns others into hoots of rage or delight, descends to low monosyllabics on the phone, and punctuates everything with snorting, cruel chuckles. Such variety does more than counter the received wisdom on Maxwell’s so-called deadpan style. It points up the difficulties the characters have in harmonizing two personalities estranged by their very intimacy. One hears Frank resist the seductions of his mother’s even-keel conversation, lest its triviality immobilize him further.
Little either one says, however, is beside the point. As always in Maxwell, the speakers wade into subject matter with such a dangerous undertow that only euphemisms, banter, and comic anecdotes enable them to keep their balance. When the mother and son argue over bank accounts and phone etiquette, they’re really testing one another’s vulnerability, simultaneously shoring up and breaking down privacy, wanting to divulge more about themselves even as they resent one another’s sympathy. Contradictory feelings about responsibility to oneself and to one another run under the whole play, surfacing in a series of conversations about “letting go,” then resolving in the last minutes when Frank speaks of relinquishing control—not to Mother but to his own instincts. “You were right, Dad,” he says, sounding like he were tumbling through empty space. “No need to worry.”
Dad? This isn’t the first time he’s mentioned—Mother mistakes her son for her husband at one point—but he’s a vestigial presence, weak even as memory, defying expectations that this family drama will have to confront him. Avoiding his legacy, Maxwell denies his characters yet another opportunity for catharsis. Instead he leaves us with the far more complex—and, strange to say, satisfying—picture of repression. When Frank does try to drum away his anxiety (not the only way this play recalls Sam Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth), or the mother sobs, or the two trade curses, they communicate only hopelessness. Maxwell’s characters reach into themselves most deeply when they acknowledge the limits of passion. “I’ve gotten really good,” says Mother, “at not feeling anything.”