America has always been obsessed with frontiers: the farthest outpost, the least-known terrain. But, Richard Maxwell observes in his new play, Samara, the truly mysterious territory, for everyone, is death, the real point of no return. Produced by Soho Rep and playing at the A.R.T./New York Theatres in Sarah Benson’s smart production, Samara is a western in the key of Greek tragedy — a humane meditation on various ventures into parts unknown.
Maxwell’s plot is characteristically spare, withholding exposition in favor of elliptical dialogue and evocative detail. A young messenger (Jasper Newell) treks across vast territories, attempting to collect on a debt, and encounters violence along the way. He meets a man guarding a remote outpost (Roy Faudree) and stabs him in a brief, brutal altercation. When he reaches his destination — a lonely bar, tended by a mysterious figure called Manan (Becca Blackwell) and patronized by a Drunk (Paul Lazar) — he tries to collect, but instead meets his own violent end.
Even in a world this bleak, though, the missing are searched for, and the dead are mourned. Fleeing the messenger’s bloodied remains, Manan meets the boy’s family: his mother, Agnes (a masterful Vinie Burrows), and his brothers (Modesto Flako Jiménez and Matthew Korahais), all anxiously seeking their missing youngest. When the Drunk arrives bearing the messenger’s corpse, a scene of ritualized grief ensues.
Benson choreographs these harsh encounters with precision, and the cast imbues them with an emotional specificity that prevents the scenes from collapsing under their existential weight. After all, the play flirts both with allegory (who are the messengers in our own lives, arriving to collect on what debts?) and with Greek tragedy, in its inexorable movement toward violence. One of the messenger’s brothers leads the other by a rope: shades of Waiting for Godot‘s Pozzo and Lucky? Then, too, the messenger’s death by gunshot — half accident, half murder — might evoke real questions of gun violence in our own time.
But though hinting at these deeper connections, the production luckily stays in the realm of abstract imagination. A score by music legend Steve Earle — who also serves as narrator, declaiming stage directions from behind a music stand — adds rumbling percussion and wailing uilleann pipes to the soundscape. (The curtain-call dance break is delightful, and the only moment of real levity in the piece.) Louisa Thompson’s set consists of black plastic shipping pallets, arranged across the floor and in piles onstage and stacked to form audience seating. The pallets conjure a bleak alien landscape — and, perhaps, hint at the transience of all our lives.
Toward the end, Maxwell and Benson confront the idea of life’s ephemerality, examining the play’s landscapes without its characters. We hear a monologue describing an overhead view of passing countryside, from the perspective of a bird flying above. A series of light cues flashes across the empty stage, as if we were watching the production over again in sequence, but with its characters and scenes already long gone. The world looks empty without its people — but oddly beautiful, too.
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
Through May 7