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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Economics is a term, when used in the theater, that usually brings to mind pencil-sharpening producers looking for ways to cut costs. Richard Maxwell is a very economical playwright/director, but since his "arrival" on the New York theater scene (which I measure from the 1998 production of House), he has given the expression a new meaning -- an artistic one. His plays feature, typically, an economy of most things we think of as theater: words, emotions, sets. lights and so on. By taking the spartan route, he has delivered plays which focus on meaning. (Almost in contradistinction, most have them have also included musical entertainment.)
In his last three plays, it seems to the outside observer, he has been toying with the equation in a new way. While many of his earlier works had fairly large casts (4-10 actors), in each of the last three, he has reduced by one the number of characters represented onstage. In Caveman, he employed three characters; in Drummer Wanted, two; and now in Joe, just the one of the title. The result is his most interior, and in some ways most interesting, play to date.
But Maxwell is not really that economical (in the old school sense), so rather than affording a single actor the opportunity to morph his way through a monologue in which he portrays Joe over a 60 or so year lifespan, he employs 5 actors to share the job. So he has young Richard Zhuravenko portraying the young boy, Gene Wynne assaying the senior citizen and, in between, Matthew Stadelmann, Brian Mendes and Mick Diflo as Joe in his late teens, late 20's (or thereabouts) and middle age, respectively. A coda adds a special surprise, which reveals another facet of what Maxwell has on his mind.
The exercise reveals threads that cascade through Joe's life. Two which seem most apparent, and which share an elusive nature, are football and girls (especially one named Shannon). Not surprisingly, his parents (a writer/poet father and a mother whose death left a strong impression on the character) also figure prominently.
The actors acquit themselves convincingly, with Mr. Mendes and Mr. Wynne the most notable of the bunch, and it is fascinating to observe the manner in which perspective alters, and doesn't alter, attitudes and traits, the ways in which the character matures, and doesn't. That said, Joe doesn't really make for compelling theater. Five monologues are still five monologues, and Mr. Maxwell's style doesn't lead to anything approaching dramatic fireworks. So we listen, endlessly it seems at some points, to Joe talking -- sometimes it seems directly to us, at other times as if we are snooping on half of a conversation.
As always, Maxwell's writing is raw and devoid of pretense. It's the sort of fodder -- filled with unedited reaction -- that would delight a psychiatrist attempting to assess his or her patient's personality. We have no difficulty getting the point, although one would be hard pressed to be captivated by it.
Although Joe's monologues are played out in typical Maxwell style,essentially on a bare stage, in ambient light, each is bridged by songs (sung solo by the actors, with fine onstage musical accompaniment) that are goosed up with dramatic spotlighting, a sort of rotating starscape and (to great comic effect, intentional or not) a smoke machine. Tory Vazquez has designed age-appropriate costumes for each Joe, in each case including a red hooded jacket that, symbolically at least, connects the quintet.
Maxwell continues to be an intriguing thinker, but as thoughtful as Joe may be, it isn't exactly entertaining. This distinguishes it from some of his earlier work I've seen and reviewed, which found a way to marry ideas with a rare breed of attention-maintaining theater. Now that he has traveled as far as he logically can in eliminating characters, let's hope he returns to that more exciting form and lets them play together.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF PREVIOUS MAXWELL PLAYS Drummer Wanted
Showy Lady Slipper
Cowboys and Indians
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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