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Letters from Max, a ritual

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 28, 2023

Jessica Hecht and Zane Pais
Photo by Joan Marcus
Don't let the subtitle fool you: Sarah Ruhl's Letters from Max, a ritual is very much a play. The production currently at New York's Signature Theatre centers around two sharply drawn characters, who happen to be based on real people, Ruhl and her former college student Max Ritvo. In the ritualistic acts of sending and responding to letters, however, the epistolary drama provides a space for an intellectual and spiritual meditation on love, death, and the function of art.

In the character descriptions, Sarah (Jessica Hecht) is delineated as "a teacher who becomes a student." Teaching a playwriting workshop at Yale, she is immediately impressed with undergraduate Max (Zane Pais, who alternates in the role with Ben Edelman). Max identifies as a poet and a comedian, and his character description refers to him as "student who becomes a teacher."

The two develop a close bond outside of the classroom, sharing poetry and works-in-progress mostly through emails, texts, and letters. Much of the correspondence addresses Max's health and frequent surgeries. It is not a spoiler to state that the young poet battles and eventually succumbs to cancer. The program and theatre signage prominently indicate that Max Ritvo died at age 26 in 2016.

Rather than presenting a maudlin or heroic depiction of Max's inevitable death, Ruhl's characters confront the physical pain and existential fears associated with terminal illness directly. Their missives offer a means for contemplating life in the present tense as well as in the afterlife. In a strange way, there is hopefulness and assuagement in their poetic ruminations of death and dying. For instance, Max writes, "To imagine a heaven is to admit/ there are things in this/ world you think you could never bring yourself to love, even given an unlimited number of attempts." He punctuates the statement with, "Learn to love everything–the world becomes heaven."

The characters in the play also experience quotidian joys, disruptions and annoyances, including marriage, a hurricane, and particularly vexing, someone talking in a train's quiet car. This prompts Max to speculate, "Maybe death is an Amtrak quiet car." Ah, if only!

The play is based on a book that contains Ruhl's and Ritvo's letters, but Ruhl the playwright and director Kate Whoriskey breathe theatrical life into the material. The actors sometimes recite poems using handheld mics, signifying the performative qualities of the pieces and capturing the effect of a public reading. A third actor (Ben Edelman, when he's not Max) takes on several different roles, including a tattoo artist, waiter and angel, and he provides periodic musical accompaniment.

The design team contribute to the heightened theatricality by imagining the play between naturalistic and paranormal worlds. Marsha Ginsberg's set design fluidly shifts the scenes from classroom to restaurant to hospital room with the use of a rotating cylinder that resembles an upturned MRI machine. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting, S Katy Tucker's projections, Anita Yavich's costumes, and Sinan Refik Zafar's sound design effectively contribute to the performance as ritual effect.

As Sarah, Jessica Hecht is luminous. She performs the role with utmost empathy and sageness, and she exudes a maternal quality in her relationship with the energetic poet that is endearing. Crucially, as with the most talented teachers, Hecht's Sarah opens herself up to the lessons and insights gleaned from her student.

Pais' Max is similarly effective. Even as the character's cancer ebbs and flows, Pais locates Max's will to live, and he appears to become more spiritually emboldened as the play proceeds. It would be fascinating to compare what Edelman brings to the part, and the decision to cast two actors is an intriguing one. The publicity materials state: "We hope that having two actors alternate the role of Max in this first production creates humility around the idea of who can play a single role, and underscores the idea that Max's legacy is bigger than any one actor."

Letters from Max is a moving tribute to a prematurely deceased artist. As ritual, though, Ruhl's play summons and manifests Max Ritvo's capacious spirit whenever it is performed.

Letters from Max, a ritual
Through March 19, 2023
Signature Theatre
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York Ny
Tickets online and current performance schedule: