A narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist

Photo courtesy of New York City Players.

This play has been done before. This play is Good Samaritans by Richard Maxwell. As such, I was immediately struck by the resemblance of Kevin (played by Kevin Hurley), a weary addict of some kind completely uninterested in completing his court ordered stay at Rosemary’s (played by Rosemary Allen) halfway house to clean himself up for a reentry into society, to a certain figure dominating American society in 2017. It would be easy to spend this article commenting on what an apt depiction Kevin is for that certain billionaire, dilettante politician, but without the wealth and power. I first noticed it when Rosemary says to Kevin, “You’re playing mind games with me. I know mind games with you people. You try to tell people a square is a circle.” Despite her protestations, it doesn’t stop Rosemary from being taken in by Kevin’s charms. And boy is he charming, especially when he’s trying to get Rosemary to sign his release forms despite his consistent lies and evasions. I thought, “The foresight! What an accurate picture of a huge personality mired in personal and public failure!” But a narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist, and seeing a narcissist piss himself on the linoleum floor of a halfway house isn’t nearly as cathartic as I might’ve hoped.

So let’s instead focus on what makes Good Samaritans interesting theater. Just like everyone who translates Dante’s Inferno gets to draw some picture of all the rings of hell, so too does everyone who writes about a Maxwell show get to comment on the plain, emotionless delivery the esteemed writer/director brings to his shows. I will not forgo my opportunity.

A Maxwell play achieves a purity that few others do. After seeing Good Samaritans, a companion remarked to me play that it features the roundest characters he’s seen. I can’t help but think that the Maxwell style has a lot to do with amplifying that for this play. The acting in a Maxwell play is infamously understated. The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe that it was real. In this production, that always fresh Maxwellian understatement extends to the set (by Stephanie Nelson, who also lit and costumed the show). The ordinary community room is revealed after a sudden snapping on of the fluorescent lights, a first indication that the niceties of traditional theatrical performance will not be adhered to. It is a surprisingly realistic set composed of cinder blocks, tables and chairs that would be at home in any community center basement, and one dropped ceiling tile is marred by a brown water stain creeping along its edge. The realism presented by the set is quickly broken: the ragged vocal performance during Rosemary’s opening number and the doubling of her melody by the piano throughout the song seems more hastily rehearsed community theater play or disorganized high school musical than polished New York theater. When Kevin enters, and pisses himself, the initial realistic affect is broken further as a folding table in one corner of the room becomes his “upstairs” bedroom. But here we realize that the realism isn’t the point; it’s the aggressive plainness of the delivery that brings out the depth of experience for these characters. This style brings an interesting credibility, a reliable sense that the character truly witnessed the things they speak of, internalized them, and didn’t just feel emotions about them. Sans emotional gaudiness, the story of Kevin and Rosemary’s love becomes clearer. Kevin’s betrayal and Rosemary’s acceptance that much more heartbreaking. It becomes oddly easier to feel the complexity of the situation without an actor’s tears, comprehend the loneliness without witnessing an actor’s guarded sadness.

The work Rosemary does with the people who stumble through her door follows a classic conservative agenda: therapy through bootstrapping. But to what sort of humanity does that lead? How successful can it be to rehabilitate in this way? How does such an agenda affect Rosemary’s desires and happiness? It seems that Rosemary has nothing but her work to make her life worthwhile. She places immense importance in the love she has for the people who come through her program, but at the same time tells Kevin that she doesn’t want him there. And when the prospect of love rears its feeble head, she is taken in wholly by it.

“Loving is the hardest thing you’ll learn from me,” she says to Kevin. But Kevin doesn’t learn. He moves on from his time in rehab the same as he entered. Maybe he really did feel love with Rosemary. The two do share a song about it: “We’re getting down / to the ground / Looking low-level.” What’s more indicative of shared love on the American stage than singing a song about love together? More powerfully for me, the mundanities of love are relished by Rosemary and Kevin: her willingness to overlook the massive amounts of drool that end up on Kevin’s pillow each night, his massaging of her feet despite her warning that she has a planter’s wart. They really seem to be in it, deep in it, even though their confessions of love, their revealing of deep emotional hurt, even their orgasms are delivered with the same evenness as their first greeting. That was part of the Maxwellian magic: just uninflected words and bodies on stage are enough to create the story in my mind. Judging from the laughter and sighs of the audience around me, they sensed the story too.

Once settled in, I found it far easier to look at the show’s fundament. I wasn’t getting caught up in the highs and lows of the characters. My empathy to Kevin and Rosemary’s loneliness welled up at the end, but it was a mellow welling. I shed no tears, nor did I feel a need to. I could look directly at these characters, at the bleakness of the set, and see the themes with clarity. Where Rosemary and Kevin were at the beginning is exactly where they wind up. The inertia of collective human loneliness could not possibly be overcome by a little affection between these two people. Behind the songs and the conversation there is a simple story of two people who collided and then continued careening off into the abyss of existence. Rosemary says to Bob at the end, “I said goodbye to him today. I wasn’t sad. I didn’t cry. I just said goodbye.” The indifference of the universe to human love is encapsulated in Bob’s response to Rosemary, a final “Okay.” And who the hell is Bob? Just an old man who showed up to eat some soup in Rosemary’s kitchen.

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