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Letters From Max, A Ritual

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Jessica Hecht and Zane Pais in Letters From Max. Photo by Joan Marcus


Letters From Max, A Ritual

By Julia Polinsky

Sarah Ruhl’s Letters From Max, A Ritual at the Signature Theatre’s lovely Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, is a two-handed meditation on life, friendship, death. Ruhl, a MacARthur fellow, has a Spotlight Residency at the Signature, and Letters From Max is her first production in this residency. An adaptation of her book Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, and a Friendship is the theater version of an epistolary novel, the story told in letters.


Sarah (Jessica Hecht, luminous and charming) is teaching at Yale when 20-year-old Max Ritvo (Zane Pais alternating with Ben Edelman) applies to be in her playwriting class. Max is a poet with a sense of humor — her favorite kind of poet, she says — and so Sarah lets him in the class. Shortly after, when their friendship has begun to develop, they are having soup, and she remarks that he could manage to eat only three spoonfuls. Max speaks of surviving Ewing’s Sarcoma, a pediatric cancer. All else flows from there.



For the two acts of the play – really, the intermission was unnecessary -- the two characters, read their letters to each other (sort of) and directly to the audience. You would hope that those letters, about poetry, soup, relationships, life, illness, chemotherapy, and death, would touch your heart and bring you to tears. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen.


Under Kate Whoriskey’s direction, Letters From Max works hard to do something other than have two people sitting on stage, reading letters. They move around, sit, stand, use microphones. A third, non-speaking character plays original musical accompaniment and interacts with Max, mostly – even sometimes wearing angel wings.


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Jessica Hecht and Zane Pais in Letters From Max. Photo by Joan Marcus


Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg makes great use of sparseness, space, and a rotating central piece that looks sometimes like a literal ivory tower, sometimes like a zoetrope, sometimes rotates to reveal Max’s hospital bed. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and projections from S Katy Tucker make use of the poetry, the letters, the tattoos, the stars, the infinite sky: for a meditation on life and death, Letters From Max is visually beautiful. 



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Jessica Hecht, Zane Pais, and Ben Edelman in Letters From Max. Photo by Joan Marcus


Yet, for a play that should break your heart, Letters From Max feels uncomfortably remote. Part of that is the nature of a play based on reading letters, yet that particular trick has worked better elsewhere, even in other work by Ruhl; her Letters From Elizabeth was far more wrenching than the current offering.


Perhaps it’s because the audience knows from the get-go that Max has cancer and is going to die. It’s built into the premise, so there’s no emotional build-up. Perhaps it’s because of the “ritual” aspect of the play, which is a little obscure. Perhaps it’s because the characters seldom actually interact with each other but have a remote relationship. Or is it because the conspicuous literacy they display is off-putting, as though they’re members of an in group and the rest of us just don’t count? Maybe it’s the poetry? Max and Sarah read poetry to each other. Not every audience is ready to listen to poetry.



Even with engaging performances, interesting design, and great beauty, Letters From Max somehow never quite catches at the heart.



Letters from Max, A ritual
At the Signature Theater 480 W. 42nd St.

7:30 p.m. Tues–Fri and Sunday; 8 pm Saturday; 2 pm  Wed, Sat, Sun

Through March 19
Running time: Two hours, including one intermission
Tickets: $49 – $139