In his latest play, simply titled The Evening, experimental writer-director Richard Maxwell, head of the New York City Players, takes apart and rebuilds the way experience is structured as theatrical presentation. When The Evening had its world premiere in January as the opening selection of the Walker Art Center’s “Out There” festival, it began with Maxwell (Isolde, Netural Hero) sitting down at a table and reading a story about the recent death of his father, who had passed away while Maxwell was well into writing and rehearsing his new work. But in its New York premiere, a coproduction of the Kitchen and Performance Space 122 at the former’s black-box theater in Chelsea, the show starts with Cammisa Buerhaus reading Maxwell’s personal tale, in a straightforward, somewhat impersonal and direct voice. When she is finished, she becomes Beatrice, a bartender in a drinking establishment that couldn’t be more plain. Her only customers this night are Cosmo (Jim Fletcher), a balding, middle-aged fight manager dressed in a blue-gray velour tracksuit, and Asi (Brian Mendes), a low-level mixed-martial-arts fighter with a heavily bruised face. The easygoing Cosmo just wants to hang out, drink beer and Jell-O shots, smoke pot, and eat pizza, explaining, “I like this place, I’m not going to lie. Can’t really think of any better place to be.” Asi is determined to get back in the cage and keep fighting despite his middling career. And Beatrice is tired of it all, ready to run away to Istanbul by herself. Cosmo, who flirts with Beatrice, thinks she should go, but Asi, who might or might not be her boyfriend, is insistent that she stay. Meanwhile, a band arrives, consisting of two men (guitarist James Moore, drummer David Zuckerman) and one woman (bassist Andie Springer), mirroring the barfly love triangle, and starts playing moody indie songs (written by Maxwell). When Beatrice makes a surprise, unexpected move, all three of them suddenly have to face who they are and what they want out of this mundane, virtually hopeless life.
The Evening takes place in a “lonely corner of the universe,” where archetypal characters speak in actorly voices on a stage that reveals itself as an artificial theatrical construct; set designer Sascha van Riel also keeps the lights on throughout the show, a constant reminder to the audience that what they are watching is not real. As things get a bit crazy between Cosmo, Asi, and Beatrice, the band keeps playing, looking at the action but not the slightest bit worried that it will affect them, even as danger lurks. There’s a shock when Beatrice pulls out a gun and puts it down heavily on the bar, the sharp, loud sound echoing throughout the theater, forcing a kind of reality back into the fold. (The only other purely real elements are the pizza Cosmo is eating and the SEC college football game that is playing on a flat-screen television.) Melding Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh with Brecht and Beckett, Maxwell explores the differences between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, form and function, real people and stage performers, then tears it all down and reconstructs it in a dazzling existential finale. “We live in this garbagey void,” Asi says to Beatrice, “of all the old tropes of standing still and forgotten dreams.” The first in a trilogy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Evening packs a whole lot to think about in its brief sixty-five minutes, reinterpreting old tropes and investigating the human condition as it fades out into a memorable, elegiac landscape of hazy hopes and dreams.