Has anyone else come to desperately miss unpredictability on the stage? Whether a show is a remake of a movie (hello, modern Broadway), restaging of a classic (last week’s outing, Uncle Vanya), or simply more centered on elements other than its plot (has anyone figured out exactly what Pentecost was about yet?), nothing about a play’s plot really comes as much of a shock anymore. That is, until Glyn Maxwell picks up his pen and begins to churn out surreal, electrifying and poetic scripts like The Forever Waltz.
Granted, it is billed as “a contemporary rendering of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice,” but The Forever Waltz merely skims across the fable’s opening bits for a preliminary configuration and then absconds onto its own bizarre route. In the original tale, Orpheus and Eurydice are to be married, but on the big day Eurydice gets bitten by a snake and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve her, and is granted permission by Hades to return to the land of the living with his love only if he promises not to look back at her until they have fully departed. Not entirely trusting of Hades, Orpheus of course glances over his shoulder only to see Eurydice swept back down into the underworld. Unable to live without Eurydice, Orpheus drowns himself. If The Forever Waltz dutifully adhered to the rules of “contemporary renderings,” I doubt watching what transpires at the WorkShop Theater would have been as gripping or surprising as it actually is.
In Maxwell’s twisted version, a man (Joshua Spafford) referred to as “Mobile” finds himself in an unknown place, mysteriously unable to remember his name or what he has come there for. Enter Watts (Barry Abramowitz), a guitar-strumming guide with a knack for twisting Mobile’s questions and answers around in a frustratingly lyrical fashion. Slowly, Mobile begins to remember he has come searching for Evie (the incredibly versatile Jennifer Kathryn Marshall), the girl he loved who was brutally murdered on her wedding day. Watts, though able to summon spirits with music, can only go by the memories Mobile provides him, so a masquerade of grotesque, distorted Evies parade by them, until Mobile is finally awakened by the buzzing of his alarm clock.
Don’t worry, this is not Maxwell’s “it was only a dream!” cop-out moment, but instead is used to shuttle the audience back in time to when Evie and Mobile (real name: John) were both very much alive. Here is when Maxwell and director Elysa Marden wisely choose to downplay the blatant ethereal qualities of the preceding section and focus on unraveling the true history of John and Evie’s relationship on its way to the fatal wedding day.
The trio of actors so confidently inhabits their unnerving yet relatable characters that each time one exposes another piece of the puzzle, the gasps from the audience are literally audible. Trust no one is the subtle theme to Maxwell’s play, and no one is more suited to carrying out that order than the beguiling and sympathetic Joshua Spafford. His painful love for Evie and absolute devastation of her death cast him in such a compassionate light that we as an audience instantly want for nothing more than this nice young man to find his lost love. Barry Abramowitz handles Watts with a luxurious command of his philosophical speeches, and his transformation into the waiter who complicates Evie and John’s relationship is requisitely smarmy and uncomfortable. As the center of this whole mind trip, Jennifer Kathryn Marshall skillfully takes Evie from the talking doll mirage of the underworld to a dryly funny, anguished, and competent woman.
A large part of why The Forever Waltz succeeds so impeccably is because it maintains a constant state of trance-like suspense. Andrew Boyce’s starkly dreamlike set works wonderfully in tandem with the projection design of Michael Clark, whose shifting backdrops and live recordings of the characters further the odd, alternate universe atmosphere. The sound design, courtesy of Christopher North Renquist, immediately jolts the production into an eerie existence, and his original song “The Feather Lake Song” (with Glyn Maxwell’s lyrics and vocals by Hilary Mosher) is as hummable as any contemporary adult rock hit.
The Forever Waltz is more precarious than any murder mystery, more intelligent than any run-of-the-mill updated myth, and certainly more twisted and intriguing than any show I have seen in quite some time. As far as I’m concerned, this play can keep waltzing for as long as it pleases.
WorkShop Theater Company and Verse Theater Manhattan