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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
I am not thinking about it, but I thought about it.As I have said and written many times before, the only thing we theatergoers owe a playwright is our attention. Richard Maxwell doesn't try to alter that basic compact -- his plays are certainly accessible, and they do their part in keeping us entertained -- but he has nonetheless engineered a way to make us do a helluva lot more of the heavy lifting than we're accustomed to. And hooray for that; we can use the exercise.
---Freddie, per Richard Maxwell
Boxing 2000 is my fourth close encounter with Mr. Maxwell's work, and I suppose it is time to acknowledge that his unusual style is a great deal more than the one-shot gimmick one suspects it of being after a single viewing. Will it sustain Maxwell over a lifetime of playwriting? Who knows? I doubt it, and hope not. I'm sure there are other radical notions floating around in his head.
For the uninitiated, Maxwell's characters might as well be aliens. As in Cowboys and Indians and Showy Lady Slipper (our reviews of which are linked below) and his Obie-winning Home, their monotonic dialogue, interrupted by sometimes-uncomfortable pauses, has been stripped of its emotional context. This is a condition that is hard to fully describe, and it is quite normal to react to it by laughing the first time out.
One salutary effect of this denatured conversation is that it forces us to dig more deeply into the characters Maxwell presents to us. No longer are we able to depend on inflection to discern what people mean.
But it really serves to underscore Maxwell's essential point: that much of our ordinary conversation consists of speaking to one another, rather than with one another. There is a disconnect between what we say, what we hear and what we do (or, what we say, hear and want), and that produces lots of unintended consequences. Although Maxwell's style is less fully realized here than in some of his other works, this theme is brought more fully to the foreground.
The story centers on a Latino family living in an outer borough neighborhood that seems to have been forgotten. Freddie (Robert Torres) has lost his job, and Jo-Jo (Gary Wilmes), his half-brother, encourages him to take up boxing. A promoter (Christopher Sullivan), clearly from somewhere else, is anxious to put on a match in the local school gymnasium. Freddie's girl friend, Marissa (Gladys Pérez) hates the idea. A real boxing ring appears, as does Freddie's father (Benjamin Tejeda), and the match follows. Freddie's opponent is Jerry aka Old Kid Hanson (Jim Fletcher). Marissa departs before the fight, never to return.
At almost every turn, people speak and actions follow, but almost never do we see the latter as a reaction to the former. The promoter, who genuinely desires to serve as a mentor, asks the boys if they've thought about saving for retirement. Freddie stares at him and says he plays lotto. When the brothers talk about what the promoter said, Jo-Jo dismisses it: "Nobody takes that long to say something." When Freddie proposes to Marissa (well, he never actually proposes; he just hands her an engagement ring), she -- the only character who recognizes how insulated from interaction everyone is -- gives it back, telling him he needs to find, and express, what it in his heart. She talks poetically of her dreams; when she is finished, he says, "What happened?"
Wilmes, an estimable actor who has long been a principal interpreter of Maxwell's work (and who now seems to be assuming the same role with Richard Foreman, having starred in his last two offerings), is unusually capable of telegraphing the play's ironies without winking at us. He finds a way of stating the obvious that affords us a sort of sad intelligence that we nonetheless find funny. Torres, new to this scene, is more than adept at taking this ride with him, while Gladys Pérez affords an ample counterpoint. Despite its sparseness, Maxwell succeeds in making us care about these characters' lives and the choices they make. The seemingly optimistic final scene, however, is -- probably by design -- far too fuzzy to support us in reaching any sort of comfortable resolution.
Boxing 2000 is described as a fable, and it's best understood in that way. As you eavesdrop on the realities of other Jo-Jo's, Freddie's and Marissa's on the way home after the show -- you might as well admit you do it; we all do -- you'll have plenty to think about. Maybe you'll even talk with someone about it.
LINKS TO OTHER REVIEWS
CurtainUp's review of Cowboys and Indians
CurtainUp's review of Showy Lady Slipper