The action of Richard Maxwell’s The Evening takes place in a small, cramped, and rather downscale bar somewhere in middle America. There’s a nondescript table with two chairs, both facing out towards the audience; a counter with a couple of generic barstools; a high-def TV tuned (volume on mute) to a football game; and, in one corner, a drum set and mic stands for a live band.
The action of Richard Maxwell’s The Evening (also) takes place – if we are attentive to the clue bound up in the name of one of his characters, Beatrice – in some kind of afterlife, à la Dante’s Inferno or Purgatorio. Although there’s not a single object in the world of the play that is not a real object you might find in the real world, this also doesn’t quite feel like a real space; despite its hyperquotidianness, the set has a quality of detachment from the real, as if it is floating beside, or outside, the real world.
That’s because the action of Richard Maxwell’s The Evening (really) takes place in a theater. The supports for the wall flats are fully visible to the audience, as are the edges of the white scrim that surrounds the small set. We’re not watching anything that aspires to presents what looks like a “real story.” Indeed, the play is impossible to describe in terms of story or theme because it doesn’t really tell a story, at least not in any conventional manner. Instead, it expands theater’s engagement with the “real” by unmaking the conventions of realism. There’s no attempt to whisk the audience into another world. What we see on stage is, well: what is happening, on stage. The characters are what they are – characters invented by author Maxwell – and all they demand of us for a brief ninety minute duration time is our attentiveness to their presence, to what is happening in the moment to, among, and between them.
The play is divided in three parts. In the first section, performer Cammisa Buerhaus sits at the table and reads, from Maxwell’s journal, his account of being with his dying father in his final days. It’s a register of helplessness in the face of finality, an account of the disorientation and discombobulation experienced by both Maxwell and his father, as the father’s hold on life slips away. Speaking Maxwell’s words, Buerhaus describes a sensation “of being unwritten and without form;” we hover, with him (through her), in that space beside everyday life into which the dying of a loved one, and the grief that follows, catapults us.
And then she stands up, and without any change in posture, affect, or vocal quality she becomes Beatrice, bartender and sometime prostitute. She turns on the TV; the house lights go down. Okay, you think: here’s the play. But, well, not really. Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) enters the bar with an extra large pizza, he takes out a huge slice and munches it down. He’s followed on by Asi (Brian Mendes), a has-been prizefighter. Jim is Asi’s manager; Beatrice may be Asi’s girlfriend or ex-lover; she also seems to have been involved with Jim. She wants to escape, to Istanbul, and this desire forms the play’s slim narrative trajectory. But “desire” is a word that’s too psychologizing, and “narrative trajectory” is a category that doesn’t apply to Maxwell’s writing. Beatrice, Cosmo, and Asi are, first and foremost, characters in a play, types being deployed and explored by a writer; what happens to them, and what they want and think and feel, seems largely immaterial. While “unwritten and without form” is the diametric opposite of the tightly scripted and highly formal action that unfolds in the second part of the play, it also paradoxically describes the quality of Maxwell’s dialogue, which seems to serve more as a scaffolding to support the character’s presence on stage than as a conveyor of meaning, emotion, or action.
That’s not to say things don’t happen during this middle part – much happens, much of it far more “real” than the actions we normally see on a theatrical stage. The characters drink beer and do jello shots. A band comes on (James Moore, Andie Springer, and David Zuckerman, mirroring the gender triangle on stage) and they play music (also written by Maxwell) that sometimes almost drowns out the dialogue, just as such bands sometimes do in such small spaces. The characters repeat themselves, they utter banalities, and they don’t seem to really listen to each other. Jim and Asi get into a physical fight, and Beatrice gets weirdly, intimately pancaked between them. Asi gives himself an injection with a hypodermic needle. And, in a fabulous, LOL moment towards the end of this second segment, Beatrice shoots the two men, precipitating what I can only describe (without giving too much away) as the very realest of imaginable effects.
With the third section, the play moves into pure performance art. Stagehands arrive to strip away the walls, the band instruments, the chairs, the table, the stools, the bar, and the carpet until finally only Beatrice is left wandering a fog-filled void. A woman freed at last from the trap of her life? A dreamer wandering in the world of her dreams? A lost soul in purgatory? A character in search of her author? Do we need to pin it down? Like an evocative painting or a moving piece of music, the play’s beautiful and satisfying final image exceeds the capacity of language to describe its utterly haunting and resonant effect.