by Mitchell Conway · April 21, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #77 Mitchell Conway looks at Isolde playing at Abrons Arts Center
“……..your turn….... say it……….say the words.”
Isolde by Richard Maxwell was one of the most brilliant and devastating pieces of theatre I’ve seen. A subtle and hilarious text performed by four expert actors, this play pierces with its listlessness.
Patrick and Isolde are going to have their fourth house built. This will be Isolde’s dream house. Patrick wants her to be happy. She has found an architect named Massimo to design it. She and Massimo have an affair. This seemingly simple story creeps between almost-naturalism and back into absurdism seamlessly.
Through most of the play there are no light shifts and no music. Transitioning between scenes, actors just stop and move to their next. Scenographer Sascha van Riel has put a bland brown, almost cardboard-looking, series of walls, with different white plastic chairs, and a table full of liquor in the back.
There are too many instances of genius dialogue to name. Massimo asks, “Do you have water?” Patrick replies, “I think we might.” Massimo adds, “Seltzer.” This prosaic exchange is loaded with absurdity. What suburban home could possibly lack a faucet for water? How could Patrick be unsure whether he has water in his house or not? Isn’t having Seltzer less likely than water, so it should obviously be specified initially?
Near the beginning of the play, Patrick invites Massimo over to some plastic white porch chairs. After they sit for a moment, he says “this is where the men go.” Isolde stands watching their entire scene. Often, characters not ‘present’ in a scene will be standing off to the side watching it. As Isolde and Massimo get naked, Patrick is on the other side of the space, holding a whiskey and watching TV in their direction.
Jim Fletcher as Patrick speaks almost like someone with down-syndrome. When asked about what he does for his job as a contractor he replies, “I write the checks,” while waving his arm in big writing motion. Fletcher’s performance is nothing short of exquisite; it is a biting commentary on a certain type of man who is all too recognizable.
Patrick’s sleepy sadness only occasionally broken by moments like his hilarious accented sing-song-ing of a wine brand or taking out and shaking his stomach to indicate his weight.
Isolde says, “Massimo is an award winning architect. We’re lucky to have him.”
Patrick replies, “that’s pretty good!” Massimo, played by Gary Wilmes with delightful swagger and pretention, is referred to as a ‘cliché’ by Patrick. He never gives direct responses to questions; he rambles artisty nonsense about beauty, creative process, and not expecting to be understood. After he and Isolde sleep together he comments, “terrifying pleasure, all the damage.”
Isolde forgets her lines. On stage and in life. Tory Vazquez is masterful in this role: riddled with cold terror she speaks of “the evil un-feeling.” I could feel the blankness of her blinking. I was scared of her and she was me. As the three men watch the football game, Isolde enters and they all look to her. She stands there and stares back at them. After a moment, Massimo says, “your turn.” Pause. “Say it.” Pause. “Say the words.” The strength of this was for me partially in looking at how we take turns talking and speak when we ought to. We go when we are supposed to. But also I felt her inability to speak. The dramatic action indicated that if she entered, she should have a reason, and she would speak. But she didn’t speak. Soon she left.
Patrick and Uncle Jerry are looking blankly at Massimo’s architectural plan. Jerry, played by Brian Mendes, takes out his phone and plays The Band’s ‘The Weight,’ which the duo moderately bop along to and occasionally hum or mildly intone. In response to art they could not understand, they cope relishing what’s familiar. Suddenly Isolde bursts into tears and demands they leave.
This is my first exposure to Richard Maxwell’s work. I was totally thrown by the stark, penetrating world he created.
Patrick says to Isolde, “let’s hold each other.” He and Isolde stand for a while, on opposite sides of the room, staring out.