"THIS IS MY attempt at being authentic, you know?" says Richard Maxwell, speaking over the phone from New York, where the Obie winner is the artistic director of his own New York City Players. "Because I think if you actually transcribe what people say—I mean, right down to the, the minutest detail, uh, down to the most, um, specific, uh, the most detailed punctuation, you know, you find that there's a lot of—"
He cuts himself off, caught in the irony of the moment.
"I find that I'm talking that way right now, actually, to you," he laughs.
When you watch Richard Maxwell's Drummer Wanted (opening Wednesday, Jan. 29 at On the Boards), you're going to feel like you've stepped into somebody's stilted dream—which, as it turns out, may be the best way to describe the sometimes stifled reveries of the real world. An hour-long, sometimes musical dialogue between a down-on-his-luck rocker who has been hit by a car and the unflappable mother with whom he recuperates in his childhood home, Drummer Wanted sounds like conversation untouched by human hands. Full of random emphases, odd outbursts, and hollow pauses, the affectionate and occasionally off-kilter suburban dialogue comes across as Kenneth Lonergan writing Sam Shepard in the manner of Harold Pinter.
"There's nothing eloquent, really, going on," Maxwell explains. "I think a lot of what happens when people write plays is that it sounds like writing, you know? It doesn't sound like talking. One of the things I'm trying to do is sidestep the whole expected literary value of a play. I'm not trying to indicate people talking, I'm trying to show people talking."
And, in the simplest of terms, that's exactly what he does. Drummer Wanted (which I saw on video from its New York performance) features stone-faced actors Ellen LeCompte and Pete Simpson amusingly walking through the scattered chain of events between their characters as though on remote, moving almost robotically from one side of the stage to another, occasionally breaking into song without passion (even the "do, do, do"s are unaffected), and flatly pronouncing every word and approaching every period as though they were a part of a larger, mysteriously mundane message that it's up to you to decode. It's funny, frustrating, inexplicably tender, and annoyingly obtuse—and when you leave to go back about your business, it all comes barreling back at you as though it somehow captured something you hadn't been given the freedom to notice before. The production doesn't tell you how to react; when LeCompte strokes Simpson's hair with a stony "There, there," the decision to laugh or be touched—or both—is all yours. Met with a play that refuses to guide your emotions, you end up with the exhilarating discomfort of thinking, dammit, Maxwell just may be onto something about the poetic monotony of your own life.
It's a goal he's had since the mid-'90s, when, after a few years of studying acting at Illinois State and an internship with the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, he moved to New York and found the playwriting he'd begun in Chicago reaching a cult audience of excitedly befuddled critics and theatergoers (Entertainment Weekly named the 35-year-old artist one of the country's "100 Most Creative People" in 2001). He's fascinated by the idea that he's led his actors to a seemingly unnatural rhythm.
"Well, what is natural, though?" he asks. I feel like what I've done is sidestep the question of 'Is it real or unreal?' It's both."
YOU MAY VERY well come away from a meeting with Drummer wondering what you were supposed to get out of it. What's, you know, the point?
"That's a real subtle and almost ineffable idea, you know?" Maxwell answers, musing confidently. "It kind of embodies what live theater is, in a way. It's the subtlety of human experience, of a live human connection where I can sit in the audience and be my own director: I can choose what to look at, I can decide what I want to see, or what I want to think about what I'm seeing. And it may sound crazy, but I'm actually trying to allow the audience to give their own importance to what they're seeing: Is this character good or bad? Is this exchange happy or sad? I don't really have aspirations beyond that."
In other words, you're on your own there, too. Relish the opportunity.