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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
It's not that Caveman isn't a traditional book musical: I defy anyone to explain why it is not. But don't come expecting Oklahoma either. Just as Maxwell (who directs his own work) instructs his actors to be "normal", i.e., not to act like they are acting -- his signature style produces performances in which little inflection or physicality attaches to his words -- when they are moved to song, we discover most of them can't sing, or at least have been directed not to. (In this production, Tory Vazquez is an exception; she can and does, quite nicely. But Lakpa Bhutia and, most glaringly, Jim Fletcher, a man who seems never to have met a note he couldn't render flat, most definitely cannot or, at the very least, do not.)
Is this odd? By theatrical conventions, sure. But in reality?
Is it strange that conversations in musicals are interrupted as characters express themselves in song? Should we be surprised that two inelegant Texas frozen food workers, prompted to sing, can't carry a tune? Maxwell saves us the leap.
Caveman asks us to consider how far we have progressed from the Neanderthal age. Stuck at home, a woman (Vazquez) silently prepares dinner (in the form of microwaved pizza bagels, in a highly amusing, evocative opening scene) as she waits for her husband (Bhutia) to return from work. When we first hear from her, in song, we learn she desperately wants to find her son. Soon, we will discover that she has other feelings -- passion and a desire to "try something new", in particular.
Her husband pays none of this much mind. For he is a present-day caveman (have we forgotten Rob Becker yet?), and his woman, there to serve, is, well, his woman. Tonight he has invited his garbage-smelling lummox (Maxwell's word, and not a bad description) of a co-worker (Fletcher) -- his name is Anthony, no one else has a name -- over for some man talk and grub. No need to give the wife any advance notice, natch. Before long, Anthony, by far the stronger of the two, is making moves on the little woman -- after all, if it works for other primates, why not homo sapiens? In the (Maxwell-style) knock-down, drag-out that ensues, it's little surprise she comes out on the short end of the stick. Along the way, Fletcher does something on-stage I've never witnessed before in my life. I won't spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say it's a remarkable achievement in acting.
Keeping Caveman short and sparse does not prevent Maxwell from exploring meaty issues. Despite his economy of words, his portraits of the three characters are remarkably vivid. He uses Pinteresque pauses to great effect, both comic and otherwise, and the whole enterprise is both interesting and entertaining. The half-dozen or so songs, all written by Maxwell, are quite good and exceptionally well-supported by a trio of musicians (guitar, bass and fiddle).
If the performance style of Caveman seems outside of the box, the production values are no less so. Here, the open Soho Rep stage has been constricted by means of a large cube (with the audience side exposed) which constitutes the playing area (i.e., the cave-like dwelling). Rooms are not divided, just suggested by the degree to which its construction is completed (one side sports unpainted drywall, the other just framing studs and exposed insulation). In keeping with the overall sense of "realness," Maxwell makes few demands on his lighting designers: there is no light on the stage other than that from the ceiling fixtures in the top of the constructed cube; the theater's house lights remain on throughout. More attention is paid to costumes, on the other hand. We find Vazquez in a very housewifey shift, Bhutia in a very Texas-y hat and belt and Fletcher decked out in blue collar finery: acid washed jeans, black sneakers and so on.
In front of the stage, Maxwell has positioned the musicians on chairs that look like they might have been pulled from the dining room of the set. They sit with their backs to the audience. This is a good reminder of the final atypical feature of Maxwell's musical. Bereft of much of an overture, there is nonetheless a mini-concert after the show's curtain call. The night I attended, it was missed, alas, by most of the audience, which took it as a signal to head for the door. Stay. The music is nice, and like the actors, the musicians are a talented bunch.
NOTE: Caveman is performed in repertory with a reprise of Maxwell's play from last year, Boxing 2000. The latter is performed Wednesdays through Saturdays, May 2 - 12, at 9:30 P.M., and on Tuesdays, May 1 and 8, at 7:30 P.M.
Review of Blast
Reviews of other Maxwell plays: Cowboys and Indians, Showy Lady Slipper and Boxing 2000