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As Mazeppa sings in the musical "Gypsy," "You gotta have a gimmick." Writer-director-composer Richard Maxwell, whose latest offering "Good Samaritans" is having its American premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse now through Oct. 24, has learned this lesson well. So well, many of his admirers seem to have forgotten that beneath the style, there should be substance.

Over the years, Maxwell has earned an inflated reputation for innovative work based on the use of non-actors or professionals who are directed to recite their lines in a clipped, emotionless monotone. For example, in "Good Samaritans," a play about a woman working in a rehabilitation clinic and the client she falls in love with, who wouldn’t smile when Kevin (Kevin Hurley) tells Rosemary (Rosemary Allen) without a shred of passion, "I thought I could live without your love. But it’s just you and me."

While at times this can be a very funny attack on traditional drama, after awhile the novelty wears off and it becomes like a "Saturday Night Live" gag that runs too long.

If "Good Samaritans" is a send-up of dramatic theater, it is also a parody of the musical. Maxwell has written a soft-rock score that is performed on guitar (Scott Sherratt) and piano (Catherine McRae). Hurley and Allen’s singing is the musical equivalent of the dialogue. Curiously, the instrumentalists do an excellent job playing the songs, which are really quite pleasant, if not especially original. Apparently Maxwell, who directs his own plays and once referred to himself as a "failed rock star," still takes his music seriously.

Maxwell has also given his play heavy doses of nudity, but it’s not clear how this is supposed to add to the drama. Perhaps it’s done for comic effect. Just as a clown loses his pants to reveal his underwear, Kevin drops his pants - only to reveal that he is not sporting underwear. Or could it be that Maxwell thinks there’s something inherently funny about a slightly overweight middle-aged woman dressed in a slip climbing on top of a skinny, balding naked man to have sex?

Stephanie Mendes has designed a set so naturalistic that the cafeteria-style dining hall on stage looks like it might have been left over from some meeting at the theater. Her costumes are every bit as painfully everyday - from Rosemary’s pleated skirt to Kevin’s rumpled raincoat. They are a brilliant rendition of theater as non-theater.

Since Maxwell burst onto New York City’s downtown theater scene in the mid-1990s, he has written many plays ("House," "Cowboys and Indians," "Drummer Wanted," to name a few). He certainly is prolific. Still one cannot help but wonder how much time he spent on "Good Samaritans." Where is the character development? Where is the plot?

"Good Samaritans" is based on a simple boy-meets-girl formula but has none of the variations of plot and place that can make the old story new.

When talking about Richard Maxwell, some critics use words like "post-dramatic theater," "minimalist" and "anti-expressive," and they fling around names like Harold Pinter and Richard Foreman. Indeed Maxwell’s fans (and there are many) may hail "Good Samaritans" as the playwright’s newest masterpiece, but it left this reviewer bored and sleepy.


Biennale Bonn and Lyric Hammersmith’s production of "Good Samaritans" plays through Oct. 24, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm at St. Ann’s Warehouse (38 Water St. between Main and Dock streets in DUMBO). Tickets are $25. For tickets, call (718) 254-8779 or visit the Web site at

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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