Like a theatrical version of time-lapse photography, Richard Maxwell’s deeply moving new play, Joe, depicts the title character at different ages, recording superficial changes only to make more unnerving what doesn’t change. It’s not just that, at each appearance, Joe wears the same hooded red sweatshirt, blue jeans, and complicated black sneakers, nor that he stands in the same place held by his earlier, younger self—frozen by his desire to hold our attention. As he talks, it’s clear that less visible aspects of Joe are also unaffected by time. The grade-school boy who longed, fruitlessly, for a neighborhood girl is still haunted by that frustration decades later. The mix of defiance and defensiveness in the play’s first line—”Want to see my muscles?”—carries through all subsequent scenes, sounded anew every time Joe describes an encounter with a luckier peer, another insufficiently impressed woman, or just the unwelcome sight of his own ordinariness.
As Joe grows from JV athlete to a building owner “with outside interests” to an elderly security guard, age-old grudges linger and envy smolders. Self-confidence hardens into self-deception. He is no better at shedding his unsought inheritance—the friends who stay on to become rivals or the horizons of his parents’ own diminished lives (Dad followed the Grateful Dead “after they had been followed around a bit too much”). Even Joe’s language, alive at first with youthful swagger, grows less individual whenever he returns to favorite words and phrases—”Dude!,” “How fucking sweet is that?!”—attempts at liberated speech that only confirm his impotence.
Maxwell has visited this claustrophobic world before. As recently as last year’s Drummer Wanted, he depicted a man whose broken leg was only the most obvious of his many infirmities. The periodic bursts of rage against all forms of dependence in that play picked up the aggression and need for approval of Boxing 2000; both plays, along with Caveman and House, trapped their characters in stark boxes stripped of anything that might cushion their gracelessly direct conversations. Here, the milieu is, if anything, even more minimal, the writing more lacerating. The floor of P.S.122 has been painted prison-house gray; there’s no furniture, and the houselights stay on, except when the actors sing. Then a canopy perforated to let light in looks like a night sky—a touch of pseudo-romance that deliberately fails to compensate for the grimness below. Maxwell allows himself more expansive lines in Joe—there are great panels of speech instead of dialogue—but that very style gives Joe still less breathing room. His monologues, dense with confessions and alibis, commemorate a life known only by its circular obsessions.
Maxwell’s actors represent, and sometimes resist, that fate in novel ways. Matthew Stadelmann won’t soften his zealous teenager’s stare. Brian Mendes, the first of the adult Joes, fills his pauses with “you talking to me?” hubris. Mick Diflo, suffering the character’s middle age, clutches his right hand until it mottles. The oldest actor, Gene Wynne, looks nonplussed (he actually resembles the youngest Joe, Richard Zhuravenko) until certain words make his loose and toothy mouth open wider than necessary, as if he’s biting the air. (Joe’s final incarnation, a surprise visitor, takes the mechanized determinism of his life to a comic extreme.)
Throughout this gradual decline, Maxwell himself is both tougher and more compassionate than ever before. After he brings each Joe to an acknowledgment of futility, he never suggests (as a more sentimental writer would) that such self-awareness can be liberating. Several of the Joes describe walking to the outskirts of their city—”the edge beyond the edge” where “no one is looking at me” and “they have pay phones.” But such wandering, lacking the purposefulness of a search, leads only to the very question he wants to avoid: “What am I doing here? . . . Seriously, dude, where am I?” Joe’s attempts at bravado—”This is me and here I am!”—fall flat, unheard in this wasteland. Truer are the minor-key recognitions of his life’s cruel untheatricality. “Things can’t get worse, they can’t get better.” “Here comes night, again.” The depletedness of Endgame could be Maxwell’s model, as could Beckett’s sense of its foundation in fear. One Joe describes the latter memorably: “There is an undertow.”
Juliana Francis places the characters of Saint Latrice in a neighboring world of humiliation. Francis, the extraordinary actress who has brightened much of Richard Foreman’s recent theater, has written and directed her own study of ontological hysteria, adolescent-variety. When Latrice, a 13-year-old “food demonstrator” at a mall, responds to the impure advances of Bob, the middle-aged embodiment of several deadly sins, she begins a cycle of abjection played out on a treacherous landscape. At every turn, she can’t refrain from admitting need, and can’t protest when that honesty is exploited. “I wish every bone in my body was broken,” she says, so “Bob would feed me hospital Jell-O.” The Las Vegas style in which Francis stages this self-abasement—in one scene, three leggy showgirls pop out of nowhere singing “I Like It Like That”—keeps her play from turning mordant. But not from turning mawkish. Latrice eventually avenges her insulted honor, exulting at her newfound power. The accompanying message about self-esteem, however, is no less artificial than the world Latrice escapes.