Brantley and others carry on as they do because they find Maxwell's style of theater fresh and meaningful. His signature approach as director is to strip all, or most, of the affect from the dialogue he's written as playwright for the lower-class characters he examines. He doesn't want actors to make what they're saying "real" and, to ensure that they don't, he encourages them to avoid inflections when delivering their clipped, if not terse, speeches. As Maxwell has explained in at least one interview, "My feeling is, it's already real because you're doing it. It's not another reality that you're trying to create. You're seeing what happens in the moment, which is, for me, the highest reality."
This indicates a serious misunderstanding of what good acting is. Maxwell, who seems to have derived his attitudes from Bertolt Brecht by way of David Mamet, doesn't seem to have noticed that actors attempting to be "real" are bad actors, that good actors are always "in the moment." This blind spot is at the center of my resistance to much of what goes on in his short and tart works. That resistance continues with his new piece, Joe -- a play that has nothing to do with either the 1970 or 1997 films of the same name.
In this Joe, Maxwell deviates from his earlier plays, in which characters often delivered virtual monologues while standing alongside each other, by bringing on five actors one at a time to portray one blue-collar Joe over the course of approximately 60 years. The dramatist also sends out -- get this! -- robot. Each of the six figures, their arms held loosely at their sides and speaking in the continuous present, give autobiographical data that adds up to a portrait of a guy who played football as a kid and continued to do so throughout his adolescent years. If I followed this correctly, Joe never rises above junior varsity. As an adult, he makes a few bucks in real estate but loses them when responding to a wanderlust that eventually brings him back into contact with childhood friends Shannon (for whom he had developed a deep love) and Tony Anthony (who has married Shannon). Along the weary way, Joe takes a job as a security guard. He makes many references to a man named Harris who saved him from near-death, and even includes him in a will.
Each of the average Joes wears the same outfit: a hooded red jacket, denim jeans, and black boots. The robot, who has a speaker for a mouth, wears boots, but the red jacket is painted on its thin, metal parts. (Costumer Tory Vazquez has allowed the five live Joes to sport different shirts.) Each man concludes his monologue with a song as the next Joe enters and starts another of the ditties Maxwell followers have come to recognize for their refusal to be conventionally melodic. During the singing, the house lights, which otherwise remain on, flick off and a spotlight hits Joe, above whom star-like points of light glitter through a suspended canopy. Jane Cox is the lighting designer, and the little she's called on to do here is still more than that demanded of set designer Gary Wilmes, who has erected the canopy and put a grand piano upstage for Corby Stutzman to play, plus a couple of chairs for guitarist-Dobroist Scott Sherratt and saxophonist Bob Feldman. (You can always tell when a monologue is about to end because, about 45 seconds before it does, Sherratt readies himself to strum.)
Maxwell seems to be saying that the world has become desensitized; that meaning has drained from it; that the man on the street is depressed, aimless, defeated. All that's left for humanity to express is anger, resignation, and boredom. With the introduction of the robot, he seems to be going even farther -- suggesting that, within the next 100 years, we'll be so reduced in our feelings that we might as well be mechanical and there will be no actual men and women. (It so happened that, at the performance I attended, the robot failed to speak when it was supposed to. A live technician had to enter and make the required adjustments. So, while Maxwell is arguing for humankind's demise, the technician's appearance implied that it's far from over for humanity.)
Since Maxwell is both playwright and director, and it's interesting to examine the discrepancies between his accomplishments in each arena. The demands he places on actors when he's directing them can be seen as different from what he calls for as author. Considered in this way, he gives performers -- at least in Joe, and perhaps in of all his pieces -- a better play to work with than the production he directs makes manifest. There is something undeniably moving about Maxwell's texts. As Joe journeys through his six ages, he does take on the aspect of a recognizable fellow, a yutz for whom the audience pulls -- that is, if you discount his final incarnation. This is especially true because, perhaps in defiance of what Maxwell has coaxed from them, the actors playing Joe lend him progressively more emotion. In order of appearance, they are Richard Zhuravenko, Matthew Stadelmann, Brian Mendes, Mick Diflo, and Gene Wynne. Although they all resolutely hold their arms in place, the latter three shift their heads from side to side and allow tendrils of feeling to sprout among their words. (None of them sings at all well, by the way.)
It makes you wonder what the experience of Maxwell's plays would be like were other directors giving these works more traditional interpretations. One also wonders if Maxwell has ever asked his sister Jan to join one of his casts. The actress, who was last seen in House and Garden and will appear next in Israel Horowitz's My Old Lady, is always real on stage. Perhaps her brother invited her to be in one of his plays but, upon reading the script, she ultimately said: "No, thanks."