American Anomie

Richard Maxwell's plays resemble the paintings of analytic cubism, a style marked by a monochromatic, fractured collage of everyday three-dimensional objects reduced to two-dimensional squares and circles. Likewise, by breaking down and flattening our colorful American idiom into its component parts of straight talk and roundabout prevarication, Maxwell's plays help us observe the essential shape of our concerns and the undercurrent of anomie that belies our speech's animation. As important as analytic cubism was, however, its heyday was deservedly short-lived. The pleasures of such deliberately dull and angular compositions quickly fade because their appeal is almost entirely cerebral. Similarly, Maxwell's work, while an important step, is merely that: a step—it trips up if it stays put. Unfortunately, his current play, The End of Reality, malingers in its deadpan monologues until they finally succumb to the malaise of ambivalence that is their subject.

Five security guards on night watch struggle to relate to one another, and to a silent intruder in their midst, with various methods of coping with their boredom, helplessness, and fear. The images of an institutional lobby, a sterile corridor, and a motionless computer lab are projected by security cameras onto a video monitor. We are in the guard tower of a postmodern Panopticon, but, ironically, it's the guards themselves who are simultaneously anaesthetized and scared out of their wits.

Even if something happened, the guards, unlike police, are not supposed to fight. The florescent lighting imperceptibly flickers. Otherwise, there is a rigid monotony to their existence. The guards talk at—not to—each other about sports, the weather, their weekends. Without such talk, their vulnerability would be too palpable. However, their disconnected speeches, gauche pauses, point-blank stares at the audience, stylized male gestures, nervous repetitions, offbeat slang deconstructed in slow motion, and overwhelming lack of affect—even when describing situations that demand poignancy or paroxysm—betray them: they are faithless and afraid.

When the intruder arrives, it's as if such horror had been half longed for because it gives their lives dramatic moment. It's a kind of solution. They can finally utilize their skills and achieve the purpose of so much waiting. But, then, the conflict with the intruder seems to parody itself—the fight becomes an overly theatrical mockup of kung-fu movies.

Once detained, the intruder sulks in the center of the room: massive, silent, at the mercy of unknown forces—a living symbol of their anxiety. Yet their lives go on around him as usual with macho posturing, flirtations between the sexes, unconvincing sermons from the boss, and minor family crises. Nothing changes. Their situations, however, have been put into absurd relief: the dreadful has already happened, and—like Beckett's clowns—they can't go on, but do.

The play succeeds when it separates its characters' banal speech from their genuine feelings so that the heavy undertones of grief and longing break apart from the clichés they spout so fluidly. For example, the stop-and-go speech of a tough-guy veteran telling a female newcomer about his collection of Jordans and "Lil' Homies" (tiny figurines of urban stereotypes) reveals both his lack of self-awareness and his inner desperation, and it is a moment at once hilarious and heartbreaking.

Too often, though, the characters drone on in monotonous, disjunctive monologues. The characters don't seem to know where they want to go, their speech meanders, and, consequently, the audience begins to lose interest. Ultimately, there is not enough variety or enthusiasm in their dry, uninflected voices to sustain our attention for long swathes of soliloquy. When the characters engage in dialogue, on the other hand, their punctuated rhythms and extended pauses embellish the banal discourse so we can hear their alienation, not unlike the faint, hollow buzz of monitoring devices along the corridors.

The large, black stage engulfs the characters, while the sharp, white canvass backdrops convey the blankness of their yearning.

One shares the characters' uncertainty over whether their story is comically realistic or bleakly absurd. Or a tragedy, perhaps, about how the unserious levity with which we proceed with our lives undercuts the very matters of deadly earnestness that are at stake in them, even though, in the face of such existential nightmares, we have recourse to little else except these exchanges of shopworn trivialities to stave off hopelessness.

In the end, the image of a character who avoids reality by clinging blindly to his faith, talking incessantly of angels and ecstasy, is upstaged by a kneeling woman behind him who has been literally blinded by her fear. She reaches out her hands, imploring, while the personification of their terrors stalks off into the world.

Much like cubist portraits, it's as if Maxwell has put his characters under a strobe light, each threadbare trope of salvation shattered, frozen, and recognized for its inadequacy. Those brief flashes in the remorseless dark, however, are too inadequate even for their own designs.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post