By Bob Shuman
Nothing’s invisible or spiritual in Richard Maxwell’s plays. He only ascertains what’s lumpish, material, and corporeal. Then he so overemphasizes them that they seem like a downtown arts insider’s cool, coercive manipulation. The insistence on flatness, awkwardness, and mendacity defines a Brutalist vision of an industrial, institutional, and overly socialized worldview, which only Maxwell and his odd artist or misfit can survive. The vision is so promulgated that it comes across as a tic or fetish—it’s not so much an indictment of society but a sealed truth. Fortunately, characters and actors can get away from a creator, as Ingrid Bergman does in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata–she had trouble empathizing with the recriminations of her frumpy daughter (Liv Ullmann). Although Ingmar Bergman had written the script to show the “bad” parent, finally, the issue remained unresolved.
Finding the characters who don’t accept their sentences can make work more compelling, because they contradict the dramatist’s universe—and, they can give it more complexity, and, especially in Maxwell’s case, more accessibility. His troublemaker is Rosemary (Rosemary Allen), a hulking coordinator for the homeless in Good Samaritans, which is just ending a short run at Abrons Arts Center on February 25. She’s interesting because she can survive in a dumbed-down, utilitarian, proto-Orwellian world—as well as breach the rules, like a Sixties anti-hero. Her disregard would drive others—such as her new resident, the vagrant, Kevin (Kevin Hurley)–out of the system. He can’t sing (she can’t either), and he has problems telling the truth. Lacking sincerity, without polish to the point of amateurness–which is part of the postmodernism—the play wants to tell a love story for the unindividualized masses, under fluorescent lights.
Rosemary is like the tough, great-hearted big Catholic women who somehow survive in nursing or teaching, serving the poor with bad pay—O’Neill’s Josie is a relative. That such a character should find physical gratification—because that’s about all she’s allowed–is the trajectory of Good Samaritans. Maxwell, with such a clinical interest in documenting the species, cannot make her into a complete slab of meat, though. Allen won an Obie, in 2004 for her role in the original production—her performance is an artistic triumph and Maxwell’s opposition between romance and the mundane is made believable. His solution to being gouged and flattened by impersonal, undifferentiated society is not protest, not finding meaning through work, but delinquency. The audience may feel frighteningly fat and old by the time they get out of the theater—Maxwell and his company have transmitted his vision, to be worn and lived in. Fortunately, it will wear off after a few days.
Visit Abons Arts Center: http://www.abronsartscenter.org/
Abrons Arts Center and New York City Players present
Written, directed and with songs by Richard Maxwell
Set, lights and costume design by Stephanie Nelson
Starring Rosemary Allen and Kevin Hurley
Musicians: James Moore and David Zuckerman
Press: John Wyszniewski/Blake Zidell
Photo: New York City Players.
© 2017 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.