Richard Maxwell confesses that he had never even heard of Eugene O'Neill's S.S. Glencairn plays prior to getting a fateful call in 2011 -- "totally out of the blue" -- from the acclaimed Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte. "She said, 'We've been kicking around these plays for a while,'" he recalls, "'and I can't figure out what to do with them.' And then she said, 'I got this idea to ask you.'"
Maxwell is speaking by phone from Manhattan about Early Plays, the evening culled from O'Neill's early quartet of one-acts set aboard the fictional British tramp steamer S.S. Glencairn. The co-production between the Wooster Group and Maxwell's own New York City Players company comprises three of the playlets: Moon of the Caribbees (1918), Bound East for Cardiff (1914) and The Long Voyage Home (1917). The show, which opens at REDCAT on Thursday for five performances, will mark Maxwell's Los Angeles debut as a director.
To New York and international audiences, Maxwell is better known as the auteurist writer-composer-director of tersely elliptical plays like 1998's House, 2000's Boxing 2000, 2006's The End of Reality and last year's highly acclaimed Neutral Heroes -- all directed with a signature rigorous minimalism and performed in a style that has been variously described as "deadpan," "amateurish," "monotonal" and "postdramatic."
In fact, Early Plays is only Maxwell's third time at bat as a director of non-Maxwell texts. His first was his legendarily polarizing, 2004 staging of Henry IV, Part I at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in which reportedly up to a half of the audience walked out in mid-performance. More recently, he directed Christina Masciotti's play Vision Disturbance in 2010 in a lauded production that inaugurated New York City Players' American Playwrights Division, dedicated to promoting the work of early-career playwrights.
But, the director asserts, whether it's his own play or canonical works by Shakespeare or O'Neill, the staging concerns remain the same. Unlike LeCompte's high-tech, multi-media ripped stage deconstructions, Maxwell productions are rawer, stripped-down affairs of flattened aspect and low affect. It's a "style" -- Maxwell hates the term -- that has evolved in part from his own origins as an actor but mostly from a desire to distill from the accretions of mannered and irrelevant stage conventions what is essential to a live theater performance. Or, in Maxwell's words, "what's important."
Whatever else is important, it includes what he describes as "getting to the essence of the verb." And in Maxwell's stage vocabulary, the verb is never "to be convincing." "What I've noticed when I watch people say things in front of me on a stage," he explains, "is that ... whether or not there is 'acting' involved, there's a person up there, they're wearing [a costume]. And I'm making these associations already and they haven't even spoken, right? I see them and instantly I see a character. I'm aware of the fact that they're not saying lines that are their own -- that it's not spontaneous. ... So my conversation with the actor then is like, 'Well, what is your job? What are you doing? Why are you doing what you're doing? Why are you here?" The answer, he adds, is usually that "we're telling a story. We're sharing. We're sharing with people in a live context. And I think that's pretty valid in itself."
From an acting standpoint, Maxwell's approach is an outright rejection of the assumptions underpinning the Actors Studio-popularized "method" that has dominated both this country's postwar stage and mainstream cinema. "To transform yourself authentically through emotional memory, to realize a character," is, he says, "something that you can fold up and put in your pocket. I don't ask that of my actors. In fact, I feel like that gets in the way. I think that that's something that is antiquated and doesn't really apply. It's not germane to the discussion."
What is germane, says Maxwell, are the words as they are written. "If we're not going to say those intelligently, what's the point? So I'm a bit of a stickler about being accurate with the lines. ... Because I feel that's primary -- to get the text across as it's written. If you look at what the jobs are out there for the actor, knowing your lines -- that's one of the few concrete things that you can master. So do it. If that's something in your control, then control it. Because there's so much when you step up on stage that isn't in your control."
Getting O'Neill's words right was, he admits, a challenge. Though the plays are notable as the writer's initial, pioneering break with 19th Century melodrama, the texts are shot through with archaic convention, not the least being the arch, phonetic dialect that O'Neill employs for the dialogue of the multinational S.S. Glencairn crew.
Initial attacks reputedly included Maxwell stripping the dialect in a "streamlined" version that was based in part on the screenplay from John Ford's 1940 Hollywood conflation, The Long Voyage Home. And though that approach was eventually discarded -- along with the most plot-heavy of the plays, In the Zone, "because I really didn't know what to do with that play" -- the film remained as a sort of visual touchstone throughout rehearsals. "We looked to that throughout the process," Maxwell admits, "me and the designers, yeah. You know, like Enver Chakartash, who's also in the show -- he's a costume designer -- and also Mike [McGee], the lighting guy. It was a point that we would use, so it's in there."
Everything else is pure O'Neill -- dialect and all -- in a production anchored by Wooster heavyweights like Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk, as well as Maxwell crony Jim Fletcher (who most recently appeared at REDCAT as Jay Gatsby in Elevator Repair Service's Gatz). The rest of the ensemble is a mix of non-professionals and actors from New York Players. The fact that the show won Maxwell a 2012 Obie for his direction suggests that all involved did finally get something right.
As to whether L.A. audiences will embrace an S.S. Glencairn skippered by Maxwell, the director remains upbeat. "I mean I always hope that they like it," he says, "but I hope they'll like it for different reasons. It goes back to that [mistrust of the] rote thing. I don't like to spell things out for the audience. And I'm guessing that audiences don't like it either. But I feel that somehow that onus gets put on [the] work, and I'm really curious to see the results of ignoring that."
Early Plays opens at REDCAT on Thursday, February 21.