A scene in which three people eat microwaved pizza is one of the most riveting in the New York premiere of Richard Maxwell's Caveman at the SoHo Rep. For several minutes, two men and one woman do nothing but chew--and the action is utterly engaging. The downtown auteur Maxwell has a way of transforming the most ordinary activities into theatrically electrifying moments. However, other parts of the show never transcend the banality of its circumstances.
At his best, Maxwell is capable of directing his actors in what at first appears to be a highly stylized manner, the stage equivalent of a Hal Hartley film. The performers' voices have little or no inflection and they barely move while speaking. Upon further consideration, however, you come to realize that this is actually much closer to the way people really talk compared to the unrealistic conventions of traditional theater.
The show's musical numbers are even more jarring, because they don't seem to correspond. This is not the first time the writer/director has used songs within his pieces; House and Showy Lady Slipper each contained several musical numbers. But the half-dozen songs in Caveman embrace such tired, brainless rhymes as "Yes, I do/I love you/I mean it, too/Please love me too." Although occasionally amusing, the lyrics are ultimately less than entertaining. The musical score, reminiscent of 1980s pop tunes, is performed live by a three-person band made up of Gret Hirte (violin), Bryan Kelly (bass), and Scott Sherratt (guitar). The violin lends a surrealistic quality to the music that would otherwise be lacking.
The three actors in the show are all good, but not extraordinary. Tory Vazquez has the best singing voice, while Jim Fletcher displays the most consistently impassive facial expressions. Lakpa Bhutia always seems to be on the verge of breaking into a large grin, making his performance at once the least consistent and the most dramatically interesting.
There's not much by way of plot in Maxwell's script. The play centers around a man and a woman, who are visited by one of the man's co-workers. The couple apparently once had a son who has gone missing; the woman wants to drive around looking for him. The production also features a love triangle, a fist fight, and onstage urination.
Stephanie Nelson's set design is an elevated box that gives the impression of a trailer home. Tacky kitchen tile covers the floor, and the furnishings are rather sparse. Eric Dyer's lighting design is also deceptively simple; he has removed all the instruments from the overhead grid and left the audience completely lit by fluorescents throughout the performance. In addition, he's wired the set with lighting fixtures to provide extra illumination for the playing area. This no-frills approach is oddly appropriate to Maxwell's hyper-naturalistic style.
The hour-long performance is ultimately unsatisfying. But if Caveman does not quite rise to the level of some of Maxwell's other shows, all is not lost: Boxing 2000, the writer/director's critically acclaimed hit from last season, is being performed in rep with his latest work.