There’s a neon display over the mezzanine bar in the spanking new A.R.T./New York Theatres on 53rd Street that reads, “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” It’s an apt distillation of Richard Maxwell’s eccentric Samara, which has just opened there. Maxwell’s odyssey, artfully wrangled by Soho Rep Artistic Director Sarah Benson, invokes the ghosts of Shakespeare and Brecht to question the very notion of making and attending theater.
The play is light on plot and heavy on metaphor: a Messenger (refreshingly unpolished 14-year-old Jasper Newell) has traveled from Samara to collect payment from a Supervisor (Roy Faudree). When the Supervisor demurs, the Messenger kills him and travels even farther to collect the Supervisor’s debt in lieu of his own from the Manan (Becca Blackwell) and the Drunk (an unhinged Paul Lazar). When the Messenger refuses to leave until he receives payment, the odd couple dispose of him, but in a fit of conscience determine to return his body to Samara, which they also left long ago. On the way back, they run into the Messenger’s mother, Agnes (Vinie Burrows), and her other sons, Cowboy (Modesto Flako Jiménez) and Beast (Matthew Korahais), and a reckoning is made.
Samara’s allegorical bent recalls Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, down to the presence of a narrator. Though Maxwell is too invested in the pleasure of performance to be considered a full-on acolyte of the 20th-century dean of alienation, he shares with Brecht an aversion to naturalism and a desire to engage audiences by discomfiting them.
Brecht’s narrator is known as the Singer; Benson and Maxwell do him one better by putting an actual singer on stage to narrate their picaresque oddity: alt-country elder Steve Earle, pulling double duty as composer. Perched behind a music stand and carting his 40 years of Nashville hard living, Earle has a dry, sardonic aura.
Earle’s presence is one of a number of welcome casting decisions employed by Benson to nudge the audience into self-scrutiny. She has filled the cast with a panoply of bodies often considered unfit for the professional stage: young, old, amateur, trans, fat, of color, performers with braces and crossed eyes; it’s a veritable Rainbow Coalition of representation that never feels exploitive. “What are you?” the Messenger asks trans actor Blackwell’s Manan. “What am I what?” is the response, a defiant assertion of the right to exist in the world of the play and the world outside the theater. “Why are you you and not someone else?” might be an even better way to summarize the play’s thematic thrust.
Eighty-eight-year-old Burrows is the cast MVP. Samara becomes something deeper and richer when her Agnes enters halfway through, like a kinder, world-wearier version of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Burrows even becomes possessed at one point by the ghost of Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife and the original Mother Courage, emitting a silent scream in a conscious nod to the original actress.
Louisa Thompson’s set of black plastic packing crate flats also precludes comfort; the entire space is built from the same rigid material. Even with the foam cushions provided, you may find yourself wondering in concert with the neon display why you are there and not somewhere else as the play rounds the one-hour mark. The set will numb your buns, but it holds secrets of light and sound that reward your patient discomfort. The dancing lights and disembodied sound start to feel like one abstraction and about three endings too many, but the effect is pleasurable, if not entirely convincing.
Maxwell, who usually directs his own material, has entrusted Benson with his strange baby, opening the way for an expressive clarity not usually associated with his writing. The cost of that clarity is an acting palette that borders on the slapdash; it is often nigh on impossible to divine if acting choices are anti-naturalistic or just not very good.
Ultimately, Maxwell would probably say that it doesn’t matter. He has, in fact, written: “Apart from any style, I believe good performance is thorough performance and depends on a constant sense of beginning.” By that standard, Samara succeeds with aplomb. The play ends with a jig, employed in the Elizabethan period as a new beginning for the characters who have suffered and died; it’s a means of easing the audience back into the real world and reminding them that it’s only a play. The jig, like the play, is revivifying. With theater this complex and engaging, the real question is: Why would you be anywhere else?
Richard Maxwell’s Samara runs through May 14 at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday with a special 5 p.m. performance May 7. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 352-3101 or visit sohorep.org.