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A CurtainUp Review
Cowboys and Indians
By Les Gutman
This is a play -- a decent argument could be made for calling it a musical -- about Francis Parkman (Pete Simpson), a Brahmin who, with his cousin, Quincy Adams Shaw (Aaron Landsman), goes (via Saint Louis) to the Oregon Trail to learn more about Indians. If Parkman's source material (called The Oregon Trail) seems an odd inspiration for a play, much less a musical, it is.
The substance of the story is pretty much beside the point. As told here, it also gets pretty boring. Along the way, the Bostonians meet a couple of slow-moving and thinking religious hicks named Ma and Pa Thurlow (Johanna S. Meyer and Ford Wright), a sea captain of Welsh origin named Chandler (David Cote), Henri Chatillon (Eric Dean Scott), a guide of French/Native American origin, a couple of Native Americans (Lakpa T. Bhutia and Sally Eberhardt) and a scion of Laramie, Wyoming society (Okwuchukwu Okpokwasili). Amongst them, there is some fine and not-so-fine acting.
Why we are here can be summed up in two words: Richard Maxwell. This thirty-something playwright, who is also his own director, has increasing caught the attention of the New York theater community with production of seven of his previous plays, most recently House. This time, he shares playwriting credit with Jim Strahs. The repeated observation is that Maxwell, while comparable to others, has a unique, fresh voice that warrants attention.
And so he does. Stylistically, the most notable thing about Cowboys and Indians is the monotone in which the actors speak, part of his signature. Lines are recited without emotion or even implication. It's as if the actors are not English-speaking and have been taught merely to sound out the words they are saying. (Indeed, when one of the characters (Chatillon) speaks in French, he follows suit, speaking French words in the manner of a non-Francophone American.) Non-verbal behavior is almost as constrained. What little escape we see is in uncomfortable, robotic movements; laughs and screams are executed in a decidedly forced, unnatural manner. There is also an abbreviation of speech, an evident shorthand, that could be deemed Mametian. But it is its own style, and serves a distinctly different purpose that distinguishes it from Mamet and his many imitators.
The writing is both thoughtful and even artful. Maxwell's direction relies as much on the unsaid as on the spoken word. By stripping the acting of most all its interpretive elements, the audience is compelled to focus on the raw words and actions and perform its own interpretation. The eccentricity of all of this also makes it funny, a good source of amusement in a play the subject matter of which is fairly torpid.
What makes Maxwell unusual is that, instead of the sophomoric silliness many readers may be imagining this adds up to, the approach has a distinct sense of purpose. It's not the least bit derivative, and seeing it leaves one with the feeling that something honestly original has been witnessed. The execution here is not terrific but, this time, don't let that stand in your way. Go see for yourself.