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From the Archives: Richard Maxwell

By Christine Gwillim

Nov 5, 2014

Obie-award winning director and playwright Richard Maxwell will present a new work this spring at The Kitchen. Maxwell and The New York City players have previously shown The End of Reality (2006) and Natural Hero (2012) at The Kitchen (for the company’s full production history please visit http://www.nycplayers.org). While anticipating Maxwell’s new work, we took a moment to look back at past critical reception of his works and saw themes that are particularly resonant with recent current events. In fact, one wonders, when looking at historical reviews from The Kitchen Archive, whether the artist’s productions—who is often described as taking up the banality of Americana, given his writing’s stinted language and his staging’s minimalist violence which appears more like contact improvisation—will seem all the more resonant here given with recent struggles and continuing tensions between police forces and civilians in America. 

In this regard, one notes in particular how The Kitchen calendar of Winter 2006 describes his work The End of Reality, which appeared here on January 12: “Confusion and conflict, community and containment erupt and become intertwined, as the heart is traced, tracked, and followed to a heretofore unknown place, one that is, for better or worse, distinctly American.” After this fall’s events in Ferguson, MO, it’s impossible not to be struck by the uneasy terms of Maxwell’s aesthetic for violence, wondering what it says about “American-ness”: A YouTube clip from The End of Reality has aspects of campy stage combat with fake blood and blasé responses from the other characters that enter after a staged beating. The audience laughs through the beating;seeing it secondhand on YouTube makes the moment unnervingly sad. A desensitized giggle emits from the dark heads in the foreground of the video, striking a strong resemblance to the throwaway nature of grotesque violence in blockbuster movies. Looking at documents in The Kitchen Archive, one notes how a 2001 profile of Maxwell in TheaterForum foreshadows such an artistic approach. “Clearly,” the piece reads, “he is not interested in getting across any predetermined message; he prefers to let the audience project onto it what it is they’re seeing and take away whatever they want. In this sense he makes us work and asks us in fact to participate in the making of the piece by adding a third dimension to these two dimensional characters.” 

In a kind of confirmation of this assessment of non-didacticism, the New York Times review of The End of Reality would claim that “violence according to Mr. Maxwell—and there’s plenty of it in his latest work—is something more awkward and ordinary. It doesn’t so much explode…as drip erratically and mundanely, like water from a leaky faucet.” The Village Voice would refer to Maxwell's work in terms of a “hyper-realist” style, noting that the artist developed his approach when he emerged in Chicago, after an internship at Steppenwolf in 1992 led to his establishment of The Cook County Theater Department. As the director of this newly-formed company, Maxwell began to work with his actors to question their impulses and strip away the pressure to “perform.” Subsequently moving to New York, Maxwell founded The New York City Players in 1999, where he remains the artistic director. Another profile of the artist in American Theater the following year claims “the hallmark of a Maxwell actor is his or her vocal resemblance to a first-grader reading a primer or perhaps an instruction manual composed in a foreign language…The surprising thing is, after a few minutes, these stylizations prove neither boring nor contrived.”

In 2001, Maxwell described his work, saying, “It’s a danger it might become a self-conscious system, whereas I see my work [to be] about creative problem-solving.” Arguably, his work has not become self-conscious, but indeed leans toward the problem solving he strove for then—while rendering larger problems more visible. Even the brief clip from his 2006 production seems haunted by a terrible sense of complicity toward violence in America. The opening monologue of The End of Reality skips a beat with the harrowing line, “I pull the trigger. Click. Nothing changed,” as a character contemplates suicide. This line paired with the emotionless delivery of a Maxwell actor begs the question, What happens to pain when the emotion is taken away? The playwright’s focus on the mundane undoes the audience’s neutrality in ways that question complicity in the face of violence—a legacy that extends right up to systemic issues today, in Ferguson and throughout the American culture Maxwell’s art is so often understood to describe. The creepy nervous laughter of the 2006 audience stresses the success of Maxwell’s style to draw attention to what is otherwise left unsaid. As Ferguson fades from the headlines with little change, we look forward to Maxwell’s next work, in the hopes that it will similarly rustle nervous laughter.

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