Richard Maxwell’s “The Evening” at the Walker Art Center: Three characters in search of Jell-O shots

Richard Maxwell’s “The Evening” at the Walker Art Center: Three characters in search of Jell-O shots

One way to explain The Evening, a work by Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players that’s currently having its world premiere at the Walker Art Center as the opening show of this year’s Out There series, is as the 2001 of experimental theater. There’s a central section that follows a readily comprehensible plot, bookended by non sequitur episodes that bear an ambiguous relationship to the central section, and to each other. It’s Out There, all right.

The show opens with Maxwell himself stepping onto a stage that depicts, in rough strokes, a seedy bar. He reads a brief first-person narrative about his father’s dying days, but he then yields the stage to a cast of characters who come to occupy the bar. There’s Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus), a young woman who tends to the patrons’ needs for beverages and affection; there’s Cosmo (Jim Fletcher), a middle-aged guy in a velour tracksuit who manages Asi (Brian Mendes), an aging scrapper who thinks he can still be a contender in what seems to be the lowest possible rung of Ultimate Fighting leagues.

The characters are eventually joined by a band who play Maxwell’s original songs in lo-fi arrangements, unperturbed as the characters dance and fight and throw modest amounts of drugs and money around. A plot unfolds involving Beatrice’s plans to take off for Istanbul, against the wishes of her former beau Asi but with the blessing (and funding, possibly in exchange for sexual favors) of Cosmo. She already has her suitcase packed, and when she picks it up, the show takes a turn that I won’t spoil the surprise of except to say that—like Istanbul—it involves a lot of smoke.

Like 2001, you can experience this show in any of a number of different ways. You can just sit back and let it wash over you, and let your thoughts and emotions go where they will. Alternately, you can think about the show more concretely as a creation of a specific group of artists at a specific time—in which case it helps to read Maxwell’s long interview with Sarah Benson, in which Maxwell explains, for example, that the section involving his father was added after the process of creating the show was already underway. “His dying came at a time when I should have been really working on figuring out what this show is, and it didn’t make sense for me to shut that out.”

Maxwell and Benson make much about these characters as archetypes (they discuss the love triangle as “a strong geometric shape,” which Maxwell says would become “a spin” if it alternately involved two women and one man), but the actors’ characterizations are so strong that the central section becomes a tug-of-war between Maxwell’s abstracting impulse and the competing impulse to add detail, to locate these characters in place and time. My favorite moment from the show, for example, involves the fact that the lager-swilling Cosmo likes to order Jell-O shot chasers—but only for the men. “Beer, beer, beer, Jell-O, Jell-O,” he barks, ordering a round for the house.

The Evening perfectly encapsulates the appeal and challenge of the shows that curator Philip Bither selects for each year’s Out There series: it’s vastly more interesting than the tidy meta-narrative of, say, the Guthrie’s Cocktail Hour, but it’s also unafraid to take you to a new frontier and leave you there to fend for yourself.

Cosmo understands the impulse to seek new horizons. When Beatrice professes her desire to get out of town, to escape, Cosmo leans over the bar and whispers to her that he understands what kind of place in the world she’s looking for. “It’s where I am,” he rasps, “when I get really, really high.”

Jay Gabler