“I will try my best not to be sinful,” the frumpy Rosemary (Rosemary Allen) sings at the beginning of experimental theater director Richard Maxwell’s revival of his absurdist black comedy Good Samaritans, which opened last night at Abrons Arts Center. Originally produced by Maxwell’s New York City Players in 2004 and earning an Obie for Allen, the ninety-minute play features five songs written by Maxwell; his trademark odd dialogue delivered in a dry, stylized manner that highlights its theatricality; and an existential plot that is delightfully mysterious. Rosemary, who is in her seventies, runs an urban rehabilitation center where the bedraggled Kevin (Kevin Hurley), a man in his fifties, suddenly shows up one evening, in desperate need of a bathroom. “I will make it my business to make your business my business,” the straightforward Rosemary tells him. “I don’t want you here. You don’t want to be here. That’s what we have in common. In a couple six months, we’ll see what you’re made of. . . . The twelve-step program, faith-teaching, and work therapy are to help the client reenter mainstream society.” Rosemary, who’s been working at the center for thirty-five years, is sure she can help him, because that is what she does. “You came to me. And I’m telling you. I’m the answer, the only answer you need,” she assures him. Soon they’re helping each other, in a rather unexpected way.
Maxwell (Isolde, The Evening) was looking through his previous work (he’s written twenty plays since 1997) when he decided to bring back Good Samaritans, the first time he has revived one of his plays. He believed that it “feels even more resonant in 2017,” and he has a point, with Americans more obsessed than ever with self-identity. “Where is your house? Where is your ID? You know? Why are you here?” Rosemary asks, but Kevin never reveals why he has been placed in the facility, allowing the audience not only to wonder but also to consider what sins of their own might be in need of rehabilitation. The superb acting relies on the intentionally emotionless delivery of lines, but the relationship between the two protagonists is actually filled with a passion that sucks you into their curious tale, which becomes even stranger whenever the characters break out into song, accompanied by guitarist James Moore and pianist David Louis Zuckerman. At the center of it all is a deep need for human connection of almost any kind, and when Rosemary and Kevin do connect, it’s both wildly unanticipated and gently touching. Original designer Stephanie Nelson’s set is brightly cold and antiseptic, a cinder-block cafeteria with long tables and one small window that is hard for the characters to look out of, as if they’re trapped in a kind of way station. (Nelson also designed the lighting and the costumes.) A longtime nurse, Allen seems born to play Rosemary, embodying the intake counselor with an offbeat glee that seems to hover right beneath the surface; meanwhile, Hurley (Sea Plays, Bad Boy Nietzsche!) is affecting as a man in search of meaning. Together they face love and fear, loneliness and desire in ninety captivating minutes. Maxwell (People without History, Neutral Hero), a Guggenheim Fellow who with the New York City Players has won five Obies, has a unique way of interpreting the world we live in, and he is thankfully being a Good Samaritan himself by giving us all another opportunity to see this splendid work.