Many years from now, when the time comes for some art institution’s intrepid curators to organize a show called “2018” with the aim of making sense of what it felt like to be living in the United States of America in this strange, dark moment, one fruitful place to begin will be Richard Maxwell’s exhilarating new play, Paradiso, which debuted last night at Greene Naftali’s ground-floor space on West 25th Street in New York.
It may take them some time to parse it—I’m certainly still parsing it—since Paradiso is a fractured, ultra-spare artwork, moving nimbly from nearly abstract action to heart-felt monologues to the barest snippets of coherent narrative, but it is also one of those rare artworks that is more than the sum of its parts. Viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, it just keeps coming. Again and again, Paradiso (the third in a series of Maxwell plays responding to Dante’s Divine Comedy) draws you close and then goes up in smoke, only to reconstitute itself as something else in the next scene.
It begins with a sleek white Chevrolet pickup truck pulling through the doors of the gallery, with Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” playing on its stereo. It’s a positively Lynchian image, this sleekly engineered American artifact coming in from the night.
There are people inside the truck, but a robot emerges first, set down from a door facing away from the audience. The mechanical presence is a small camera affixed to the top of a rather precariously balanced tall metal frame, which is sitting on four wheels, and it rolls toward the audience, looking a touch comic, a touch sad, and a touch threatening as it speaks in a computer voice. It’s a little difficult to make out, but the dialogue seems to concern philosophy and myth, and it turns concrete at times. “We were never going to make it out here,” it says. “We needed each other, and yet we were often alone. And wouldn’t see each other again.”
“Welcome to the play, by the way,” it says at one point, taking a break from its free-flowing thoughts and earning laughs from the audience. “The nice thing about the play is that it makes a place wherever we gather.”
Soon Elaine Davis, a middle-aged woman in a sweater and jeans, is outside the pickup and speaking alone, sincere and a little tense. “It was said seismic events always happen in threes—but then found they also happen in fours, fives, and sixes if you were willing to wait for it,” she says. And, “Family—I adore them, but turns out that’s only partly the point. Push-pull for much of our lives.” All the while, the robot’s camera is moving back and forth, creaking like a field of insects.
There are passages of quick, wordless action, Davis and the other three actors—Jessica Galucci, Charles Reina, and Carina Goebelbecker—moving about the gallery, pointing heavenward, as if seeking distant stars. Reina and Goebelbecker at another point seem to be camping in a desolate land.
Galucci, a young actress with red hair, in a tone one might describe as just one notch below bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, talks about an artist’s role in gentrifying another community, a foundation’s funding ideology, and the actions of a country’s people. “We became patriots, as it was deemed necessary to survive,” she says. “We woke up and became engaged with our world, we tried harder, we loved better as loving was thought something to be taught. . . . We became a loving nation that recognized that not all people have the same opportunities.”
And she says this: “We were tolerant, so long as we felt we could do what we needed to do.”
This all seems to take place in a semi-familiar, semi-dystopian future—an emptier time. We are hearing about things that have already occurred, choices that have been made and that led to this uncertain present.
Just as this becomes grating, Maxwell serves up lines that are just achingly heartrending, and pointed at big, melancholy questions about how art and memory work. “I wish I could somehow play for you the songs,” Galucci says. “When even despite the drenching, what we came up with, we wanted to make something still—real blues, in open fourths and fifths. Beautiful because, for whom was this?
That is one moment that I keep grasping at, this invocation of a beauty born of unmoored art—existing for no one in particular, and thus existing for everyone.
The other moment I keep playing over in my head is perhaps the most stable, narrative scene in the play. Goebelbecker, a college-aged woman with long dark hair, is sick in the hospital, accompanied by her mother (Davis) and her father (Reina). The medical bill is enormous, and the family is worried about money.
Later, Reina, a lovingly brusk blue-collar type, will be discussing his belief in God (“I had to find my own path, and that’s a cliche—but only until you find that path”), but by then he is holding his daughter. “Just can’t wait to see my girl up, being sarcastic and all,” he says, his voice breaking. “You have to get better.”
Her mother, though, is a more mysterious force. She is uninterested in her daughter’s suffering; her mind seems to be fixated on other matters. “It feels kinda”—she cuts herself off. “Right now.”
Dad and daughter know where this is going. “Mom, stop being weird,” Goebelbecker says, half begging, half demanding.
“I’m not being weird,” she continues, an icy edge in her voice. “You know what I mean. It feels kinda”—a pause—“propped up. And at—any moment. Any moment. . . .”