Richard Maxwell, The Evening, 2015. Performance view, March 11, 2015, the Kitchen, New York. Asi, Beatrice, and Cosmo (Brian Mendes, Cammisa Buerhaus, and Jim Fletcher). Photo: Paula Court.

THERE MAY BE no experience more excruciating, or more essentially human, than that of rising to the occasion of a loved one’s death. What to do when there is nothing to do? How to tell a story as form is falling away?

Playwright/director Richard Maxwell wrote his most recent play, The Evening, as his father was dying. It is his first work in a forthcoming trilogy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rather than adapt or remake, Maxwell has so far loosed threads from the classic, weaving them through a story set not in hell, purgatory, or heaven precisely, but in an unremarkable bar in an unnamed American town. From Dante, Maxwell takes a hallowed name: Beatrice. Here she isn’t a muse from on high, but a self-described “prostitute slash bartender in one lonely corner of the universe” (played by sculptor/composer Cammisa Buerhaus). Drawing her into a love triangle that includes a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter named Asi (Brian Mendes) and his manager Cosmo (Jim Fletcher), Maxwell, a theater artist of staggering achievement, has produced a tender and arresting story of love and leaving.

The Evening is a performance in three movements: a prologue, a play, and its dissolve. At the top of the show, with the lights at half, Buerhaus sits at a table, looks out into the audience, and reads lines from Maxwell’s journal of his father’s last days. She, as Maxwell’s stand-in, recounts sleepless nights, an ill-fitting bed, water drunk from a sippy cup, and the aching poignancy of their final exchanges. She speaks Maxwell’s memory of a Native American man who once entered the family house uninvited, and how his father helped sober him up and drove him home. It was a kindness, of course, as well as a moment of confusion that his father calmly made sense of. The crossing from life into death, even at this late stage of his father’s illness, is unfathomable to Maxwell. “I won’t let him go,” he writes, “I can’t.” But he must, and he does, at which point his elegy ends. Buerhaus stands, takes her place behind the bar as Beatrice, and the play begins.

The subsequent plot is straightforward enough, slip-sliding along the lines of cliché. Asi and Cosmo care for Beatrice, but she seems not to care for either of them, or at least not more for one than the other. She wants to go to Istanbul and needs money to do so. Grief is, in part, her propeller. “Look,” she explains, “a lot of people have died on me, lately, and. Yeah. I mean fuck. What are you supposed to do when you miss people?” Asi, her ex, wants her to stay, demands that she stay, tells her he loves her and then, finally, asks to go with her: “I can’t let you go. You’re in everything. You’re in the walls. You’re everywhere. I really need you. You know that, right?” Cosmo encourages Beatrice to go, but believes she should return: “I want you to be… alone… not for me… I want. Love but. I want love, but…” Each in their own way, Beatrice, Asi, and Cosmo articulate a particular response to the world such as it is: seek, fight, surrender. Over the course of The Evening, the knots that bind them tighten. They drink, dance, and fight. Blood is spilled. A band plays. A fog rolls in.

In Maxwell’s work, character is always a complex concoction. In both the writing and the direction, he allows the seams to peek out between the performers and the fictions moving through them. His actors deliver their lines from point-blank range; they’re straight shooters, with little-to-no theatrical flourish. Maxwell has long been a master of halting speech, marking the spaces between thought and word, and around the entwined conditions of love and grief, he has written dialogue that is by turns declarative and faltering. Out of the mouths of Asi and Cosmo, the word “love” can sound as raw-hearted as it does trite, in no small part due to the deft achievements of both Mendes and Fletcher, two of his long-time collaborators who, while on constant boil, still hit the play’s many registers with precision. Both Mendes and Fletcher find a singular note that sounds like macho bluster and romantic overture all at once. “In my life. If I see something I like, I grab it,” Asi calls out to Beatrice in a deadpan staccato, “That’s just how it is. Do you see that?” He continues through her silence to deliver some of most simultaneously absurd and heartbreaking lines of the play: “And. If I say I love you, it means I love you. [pause] I’m not saying I love you. But if I did. [pause] But I think I do love you. [pause] I really do think that sometimes.”

Buerhouse’s Beatrice by contrast speaks and moves as though she’s always looking for herself, a disoriented quicksilver counterpoint to the men’s more forceful gravities. Maxwell has long counted on the virtues of the untrained actor, a certain affectless presence, to give his theater nuanced, contradictory textures. Flatness has great surface value in his work, creating tension around what’s traditionally perceived in the theater as depth. In The Evening’s “girl with a gun” sequence, Beatrice shoots both men and then rips open one of their shirts to uncover the special effects contraption oozing fake blood beneath. Why? Why not? Real death happens as part of life offstage; here, the actors remain standing. The fact of the fake gunshots, loud and clear, tells a far more revealing and resonant story here.

Richard Maxwell, The Evening, 2015. Performance view, March 11, 2015, the Kitchen, New York. Asi, Cosmo, and Beatrice (Brian Mendes, Jim Fletcher, and Cammisa Buerhaus). Photo: Paula Court.

In A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir’s elegant, clear-eyed memoir of her mother’s dying, the writer/philosopher recalls her mother saying, “Death itself does not frighten me; it is the jump I am afraid of.” The jump, the leap into the unknown: This is the action in question that hovers over both those who will stay with those who will go. The day Maxwell’s father was able to stand on his own was his last day alive: “He took off, like out of sprinter blocks.” As Beatrice explains to Asi and Cosmo: “I walk up to the lines that have been drawn and I shy away every time. Every time… It’s like, I am caught between two worlds and the dreams keep me from getting out and into either one.” Maxwell’s set is shallow and claustrophobic, pushing the actors and the three band members to the front of the stage, limiting their movements to such a degree that one wishes them some kind of release or liberation almost from the start. At one point in the action, Beatrice tries to get away from the men, running to a patch of carpet two-shoes wide between the band’s mic stand and the edge of the playing space. It’s then we recognize she has nowhere to go.

Maxwell has written before of people who find themselves in a kind of limbo, who for whatever reason are neither fully here nor there. In Isolde (2014), his last, an actress begins to lose her memory, finding herself untethering from herself, her life, her husband. The binding force, the connective tissue, for the condition in which they are living, is love.

Like Dante’s epic, The Evening is also fueled by love. Though not a quixotic pursuit, it is of course an ill-fated one. All of us leave or are left, someday, one way or another. Grief is what we feel in their absence, the agonizing proof of having loved as best we could. Jump is what we might do when the world we know breaks apart, is taken away, and we’re left staring into the haze. As Maxwell writes near to his father’s death, “amazing how much beginning there is in the end.” Near to the end of The Evening, we watch Beatrice cross a foggy new space a few deliberate steps at a time, dissolving into the light. Where she finds herself next is anybody’s guess.

Jennifer Krasinski

Richard Maxwell’s The Evening is presented by PS 122 and the Kitchen. It runs at the Kitchen through Saturday, March 28th.

Aaron Landsman’s Running Away From the One With the Knife, 2015, in a production directed by Mallory Catlett. Performance view, The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York. Christina (Kate Benson). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Silly Writer Construct:

See two plays, one written by a woman and directed by a man, the other vice versa. Discuss within larger context of progressive New York performance.

Shows in Question:

Social Security, at the Bushwick Starr, written by Christina Masciotti and directed by Paul Lazar, performed by Elizabeth DeMent, Cynthia Hopkins, and T. Ryder Smith

Running Away From the One With the Knife, at the Chocolate Factory, written by Aaron Landsman and directed by Mallory Catlett, performed by Kate Benson, Juliana Francis Kelly, and James Himmelsbach

Post-Performance Reality (aka Mostly Non-Construct Observations):

There is the almost-identical table in both shows. I notice this Friday night on my way out of the Chocolate Factory, with a happy little shock of recognition. I like this table detail a lot. Rusted legs, curving rectangular top. Slight variations on a theme. Thinking about the ways in which artists send messages to each other, embed secrets, within their work. Sara C. Walsh designed the Social Security set, and Running Away was created by Jim Findlay, who also did sound design.

Both worlds are beautiful, unexpectedly, and hard. Walsh makes the stage into a triptych, beige layer cake of faux-everything: wall-to-wall carpeting, linoleum, floorboard laminate. Canned food. Findlay gives us the illusion of movement within stasis, freestanding, semitransparent walls that open and enfold, disgorging from various compartments cheap coffee and chemical cleaners. Perfection (fetishization?) of a sort of barren junkiness—post avant-garde NYC aesthetic?

Or maybe post-comfort. There’s nothing to hint at the possibility of change for the better in these productions, both of which (spoiler alert) zoom toward the death of a central character, each possessing a certain empty charisma.

Compare and contrast: In Landsman’s play, Christina (Benson) is the one with the knife, and she will eventually find a way to use it (or the next best tool) on herself. Masciotti’s victim is June (DeMent), and she’s also a talker—unlike Christina she doesn’t spin hypothetical death futures, but run-together memories of the past.

They both have manipulative relationships with handymen who aren’t quite handymen. In Masciotti’s script (gender-schema alert), the man does the manipulating; in Landsman’s, the woman.

(In Catlett’s production, my sympathies flew toward Himmelsbach, a man; in Lazar’s, toward Hopkins, a woman. Audience gender schema? Anyway, the acting is grand.)

They both talk too much. They talk more than they have things to say. Dry rub of habit. Ways to inflict pain, maybe, or to keep it at bay.

Christina Masciotti’s Social Security, 2015, in a production directed by Paul Lazar. Performance view, The Bushwick Starr, Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Language & Narrative P.S.:

Structure is a messy business. “The murkiness and ambiguities of a life take on weight and authority by virtue of the published document,” Moyra Davey writes in the opening of Burn the Diaries (2014). I think I think that this is the same whether the life is imagined or actual (which anyway isn’t a black-and-white distinction, as we all know all-too-well by now—is that especially true in the theater?).

Both Social Security and Running Away From the One With the Knife resist, or seem to resist, conventional expectations up until the final stretches, at which point they lurch into, as my guest at one of the shows put it, the territory of a Meryl Streep drama.

Is this a strategy, a failure of nerve, both? Or does it rather say something about the ways in which artists are now relating and/or responding to something in the water?

Are these useful questions? It’s very easy (see “Silly Writer Construct”) to have an idea about how to proceed when you’re following in someone else’s footsteps. It’s very easy to make up your mind, so much so that when time-based art foils this interior audience process it can take a moment to realize you should be grateful.

But also, of course, at what point do the ways in which we resist conventional expectations become the new conventions, and why do we remain stubbornly programmed to see this as a bad thing? Or do we?

Running Away uses a live pop performance (music by Christian Gibbs, performed with Anton Sword) to tie up some of its loose emotional ends, and Social Security employs a sound score (by Ben Williams) for plot shorthand. The music is a trope, one that somehow manages to keep satisfying, despite (here I suspect individual audience-member weakness). The Social Security shorthand felt less adequate. Both, of course, are overt turns away from the self-sufficiency of language, that good old illusion which is never, ever, gone for good.

Christina Masciotti’s Social Security ran February 25–March 14 at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn.

Aaron Landsman’s Running Away From the One With the Knife runs through March 28 at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, New York.

Claudia La Rocco