When I watch one of Richard Maxwell’s productions, I always wait nervously, ready for the moment I have to lean forward. Each play holds out a promise of transcendence. His dramas pivot, reliably, from mundane social
scenarios to the epic emotions he reveals underneath. At some point the rock riffs always kick in. Feelings that at first seem oddly absent in his bone-dry dialogue
suddenly find heightened expression.
In Maxwell’s tender-raw early plays — House, Drummer Wanted, Showy Lady Slipper — domestic tableaux that at first seemed static surged unexpectedly into wellsprings of suppressed emotion: loneliness, desire, anxiety. More recently the
experimental playwright and director (whose signature is a drastically muted
affect and a flat, presentational arrangement of all characters onstage) has reached into myth and literature. As a
result, his abstract clusterings of characters have acquired even greater stature.
In last season’s Isolde, he lightly sketched over the Arthurian legend with a contemporary couple’s travails, using the play’s late spatial revelations to open up bold new psychic territory.
For The Evening, now at the Kitchen in a co-presentation with P.S.122, Maxwell launches a theatrical triptych using The Divine Comedy as a loose substructure;
in order to parallel Dante, the dramatist exposes a kind of Inferno — or is it really Purgatory? In this spare scheme, we are not in Dante’s dark wood of sin but in a ratty bar in Minnesota, where Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus) serves Budweisers and charts an escape trip to Istanbul. “I’m hoping it’s the opposite of here,” she declares, even though her voice is purged of feeling. As her two customers — Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) and Asi (Brian Mendes) — jostle to possess and control her, the trio forms a triangle of frustrated desires.
It’s not much of a choice: Asi, a cage fighter on the outs (“but you won!”), stands before her battered and bruised. His face bears the marks of the pain he also bears on the inside. Cosmo, his corrupt sometime manager, looks ebullient by contrast:
He’s balding and unkempt but still wants to party, talking about getting high. If Fletcher weren’t such a magnetic actor, it would be easy to see Cosmo as a sheer caricature of a slob, chomping a cold pizza in his tracksuit and gold chain and making offhand remarks. (Maxwell has often overdrawn his character types, but on the other hand, here he’s taking cues from Dante’s menagerie of souls — the scale is larger.)
From their spasmodic utterances, we apprehend the aging men’s crises of masculinity, set off by a younger woman who struggles to break away from them both. When a band shows up to play — two men and a woman, mirroring the barroom — they give musical voice to the trio’s concealed passions.
Maxwell has said that this play also reflects on his grief for his father, who died while he was writing it. The production begins with a reading of an apparently autobiographical memoir from that event, and it ends with an image of Beatrice, now transformed. The bar (and all the everyday elements it represents) now stripped away, the stage fills with fog and she wanders alone in a barren arctic of loss. Having ditched her saloon limbo, Beatrice journeys into the unknown. Again, Maxwell guides us beyond reality to a remote and elusive place, and as
always, we lean forward.