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Good Samaritans

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 15, 2017

Rosemary Allen and Kevin Hurley
Photo by New York City Players

It can be quite disconcerting to view a work by the experimental playwright/director Richard Maxwell, so before heading out to see the revival of his 2004 play Good Samaritans at the Abrons Arts Center, there are a couple of things you ought to know. The most important is this: Maxwell's hallmark is to direct his actors to strip their performances of emotion and to deliver their lines in a flat style that can make them seem amateurish. Indeed, it is not outside the realm of possibility that he will bring in actual amateurs to star in his plays, as he has done here with Rosemary Allen.

Ms. Allen and her co-star, the professional actor Kevin Hurley, are recreating the roles they first played over a decade ago in the original production of the play. Despite her outsider status in the field of acting, Ms. Allen, whose own career has been in nursing, won an Obie for that 2004 performance as Rosemary, the septuagenarian proprietor of a no-nonsense drug and alcohol rehab center, where, she says, it's all about "the 12-step program, faith-teaching, and work therapy."

The play focuses on Rosemary's interactions with one of her new charges, Kevin (Mr. Hurley), who is self-absorbed, manipulative, and prone to be self-destructive; at one point, he refers to himself quite rightly as a "monster and a friend." Over the course of the play, the two of them bicker and quarrel, agree to the occasional truce, sing horribly off key, wash dishes together, and even have a sudden and altogether unexpected sexual fling. (The stage directions read: "they kiss, move to table, undress, then fucking.") That moment of coupling leads to the some of the funniest lines of the play, as the abrupt absurdity of the unforeseen encounter, mingled with a sort of off-the-wall tenderness, sinks in both for them and for us.

All of the action takes place on an institutional-looking set lit by institutional fluorescent lighting (Stephanie Nelson is the designer) that looks more-or-less like a cafeteria in (where else?) an institution. One table set to the side serves as the bed in Kevin's tiny room. Along the back wall, there is a kitchen with a swinging door that opens and closes with a bang, in a way that is out of temporal sync with its actual use by the characters.

Shaped by the discordant effect of the empty line readings and similarly dispassionate performances of several songs written by the playwright, Good Samaritans takes on a surrealistic, dream-like quality, so that it is not hard to imagine that what you are experiencing is going on inside Rosemary's mind. It's as if she is remembering or imagining a love affair with one of her former charges, who came into her highly regimented life, briefly upended it, and then disappeared.

If you attend a play in order to be caught up in the emotional connectedness between characters, or even if you are looking for richly layered performances to lead you to a cathartic theatrical experience, best stay away from Good Samaritans. But if you are willing to allow your disbelief to remain unsuspended and are prepared to look for the human spirit underneath the cardboard-seeming characterizations, you might just find yourself discovering and connecting with that spirit in Rosemary.

Good Samaritans
Through February 25
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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