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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
To refresh recollections (links to several reviews will provide more refreshment), Maxwell is the playwright-director whose signature style is the emotion-stripped delivery of his actors. In fact, he often compounds the effect by having them stand and move in ways that some would call anti-theatrical. In his best work, the effect is an intensified attention to language and the way people communicate, and an uninsulated, powerful exposure of meaning. The effect is also quite entertaining. He's known as well for his simple sets (his best play, House, was played on a virtually barren stage), ambient lighting and a penchant for song that frequently turns his shows into something akin to a musical.
There have been those who have never seen the intelligence in Maxwell's work, and still others who have seen it but wondered if it could be sustained without a shift of style. (Is he, in the most frequent formulation of this question, a "one-trick pony" or will he produce a body of work comparable to Pinter, with whom he has a dramatic kinship anyway?)
In Drummer Wanted, Maxwell seems to have reacted somewhat to the latter chorus. There is more "acting" going on here than in previous works, and when we hear shrieks of pain, for instance, they are not lacking in amplitude. And although the set is simple by most standards, it is a fairly realistic depiction of a suburban "rec room," fitted out with cheap paneling and wall-to-wall carpeting that might have been a do-it-yourself project from Home depot.
But the basic elements also remain in evidence: there are lengthy conversations in which the "normal" inflections are subtracted and in which the speaker seems almost robotic and the listener stone-faced; there is no theatrical lighting; and there are plenty of songs.
Unlike Maxwell's prior efforts (at least those I've seen), this play is a two-hander. Economical as that may be, it doesn't afford much of a skeleton on which the subtle contours evident in Maxwell's other work can form. As it begins, Frank (Pete Simpson), in a pricelessly trashy rocker dude wig, is involved in an accident which injures his leg. He's cared for by his mother (Ellen LeCompte), with whom he lives. She's a real estate agent of a sort perfectly evoked by her career mom outfit and hairdo. She also plays the piano (he's a drummer), and they both sing. There's some effort at collaboration, but the effort, increasingly like their relationship, is discordant.
The "story" concerns their push-pull relationship and Frank's quest for a settlement from the insurance company to compensate him for the accident, even though, inexplicably, he refuses to talk to the lawyer. It's a pretty thin reed, and that seems at the heart of the deficiency that plagues the show. Maxwell fills the time between his songs (goofy by design but integral) with situations, and one-sided conversation, that coalesces into precious little. What's missing here is the residual observation of humanity, warts and all, that has grown out of his unconventional style in his better plays; it reads here as little more than an exercise in that style. His plays have always had shockingly simple plots, but heretofore they have built into pretty grand themes.
One cannot fault the performers. Both acquit Maxwell's direction impeccably, a deceivingly difficult task. Simpson evokes the gestalt of Frank's underdeveloped romanticism beautifully; LeCompte conveys the mother's confused mix of nurturing and nudging particularly sweetly.
I want to resist the notion that Maxwell has simply run out of steam. (The pace at which he has mounted new shows over the past few years is mind-boggling.) He no doubt had some inspiration for the story he's trying to tell here, but he never finds a path to communicating it.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS BY RICHARD MAXWELL
Showy Lady Slipper
Cowboys and Indians