Experimental writer/director Richard Maxwell is weary of theatrical conventions, preferring the unadorned to the well made. His shows often provide narrow entry points for the viewer, encouraging struggle over streamlined entertainment. His anti-love story Good Samaritans, which is running through Saturday night at Abrons Arts Center, is no exception. Originally produced in 2004, it’s the first revival for the intrepid artist who has spent the past two decades looking forward.
Set in a florescent-lit rehab center, this intermissionless two-hander focuses on the relationship between an intake counselor and a frequent customer. Rosemary (Rosemary Allen) opens the show singing, “I will try my best not to be sinful, but you gotta tell me what you can’t forgive” in a Bowiesque song written by Maxwell. Her voice is strained and slightly off-pitch, not unlike how someone would sing in their living room alone. She is dressed conservatively and moves stiffly but with purpose. Allen won an Obie for her performance in the original production but she is a nurse by trade, not an actor. Kevin makes no effort to hide his state of unravel. Dressed in a loud Hawaiian shirt and a grey overcoat that was probably acquired from Good Will, he carries his possessions in a plastic bag and seems to be weary of attachments.
He receives Rosemary’s initial hostility with the same indifference that fuels the numbingly passive approach he’s taken to life. We are spared backstories but can infer that her world is equally small: excess has shrunken his while dutiful obligation has confined hers. Both grapple with fear but emotions are largely left inferred in Maxwell’s world of stark and jarring realism. The attraction that grows between these two is almost entirely in the subtext. A cynic would say it’s bred from convenience and desperation but by the end it feels inescapably tangible.
Songs erupt throughout emphasizing the absurdities of expressing life through drama, and Maxwell keeps staging to a minimum. There’s an emotional yet surreal current that courses through the scenes that feels like the theatrical equivalent of how the neo-expressionist graffiti artist Basquiat would cross out words in his works to draw the viewer’s gaze to them. By stripping scenes of their emotional charge, raw phrases jump out with clarity. Colloquialisms are exposed for their shallow content while the inarticulate nature of humanity is highlighted.
With Maxwell’s stylistically unadorned touch, there is always a danger that beats will bleed into monotony. While Good Samaritans is not exempt, those moments feel like badges of endurance to be worn proudly. Struggling through them draws us closer to the imperfections of this unlikely couple who speed through the cycle of a relationship. Seeing it unravel so quickly calls attention to the inherent cyclical nature of our existence. “I said goodbye to him today,” Rosemary tells a new patient at the close of the play. “I wasn’t sad. I didn’t cry. I just said goodbye.” How much of that is true is up for us to decide.
Starring: Rosemary Allen and Kevin Hurley
Directed and written by: Richard Maxwell
Through: February 25 at the Abrons Art Center