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Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Tory Vasquez and Gary Wilmes
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

To enter into the world of playwright Richard Maxwell is to forego any expectation of straightforward clarity, richly realized characterizations, or emotional connection. If you can accept these strictures, however, you will be pulled into a bare bones universe that is as compelling as any of Harold Pinter's what-lies-beneath-the-surface works.

Pinter comes very much to mind when viewing Maxwell's Isolde, an evanescent, dream-like play about a sexual triangle, loosely inspired by Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde," in the New York City Players' production at the Theatre For A New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Pairing Maxwell's Isolde with Pinter's "triangle" play Betrayal would make for an ideal combination to be placed in rotating rep.

Isolde (Tory Vasquez) is an actress, a diva who is widely admired for her beauty and who has come to expect adoration and the trappings of wealth as her just due. She has married well, to a successful contractor, Patrick (Jim Fletcher), who lives to indulge her every whim. Patrick is even more inclined to keep her happy now, as she is slowly losing her memory and is starting to disappear into herself bit by bit.

At present, Isolde's whim is to design her perfect home, and sparing none of her husband's expense, she has invited the renowned architect Massimo (Gary Wilmes) to join her in the enterprise. Before you can blink twice, the pair is having a hot and heavy affair pretty much under Patrick's nose. (A most Pinter-like moment occurs when Isolde nonchalantly drops her recently-removed panties onto the bar and leaves them there.)

For his part, Patrick seems to be unconcerned about the sex. Indeed, he'd just as soon hang out with his pal, Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes), who is hankering after the job himself. But what does get his hackles up is Massimo's unwillingness to come up with an actual plan or budget for the house he is supposed to be designing.

Where Pinter traffics in repressed rage and guarded conversations that barely hide the character's roiling emotions, Maxwell —who also directs —strips away affect, so that the performances and line readings come off as stiff and awkward. This takes some getting used to, like getting to know individuals through a CT scan of their insides.

Given the constraints within which the actors must perform, the cast is excellent, and all of them find ways to individualize their characters. Patrick is the self-assured businessman with the trophy wife; Uncle Jerry is the laid back, if ambitious, dude; Massimo is the phony artiste; and Isolde is the woman of allure, who remains a mystery even to herself. This sense of peering beneath the surface is also reflected in Sascha van Riel's sketchy set design, looking like the skeleton of a home that has yet to be completed but that is nonetheless being occupied.

Through September 27
1 hour 25 minutes
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix