Review by Martha Wade Steketee
From 2012 through 2016, playwright Sarah Ruhl exchanged letters with her student Max Ritvo, which she published in 2018 as Letters from Max. Now she has adapted that book, along with poems by the two of them, into a theatrical rumination on friendship, death and how to live. We are told in the play’s first minutes that the college-age Max has Ewing’s sarcoma, and that he endured treatments of chemotherapy in his teen years. It’s no mystery where this story is headed, but that doesn’t make the journey less affecting.
In this ritualistic pas-de-deux, Jessica Hecht dances the Ruhl part with two different partners: Ben Edelman and Zane Pais play Max on alternating nights. The actor who is not playing Max at a given performance provides original musical accompaniment instead; Edelman plays piano with his back to the audience, whereas Pais plays guitar engagingly at the edges of the stage. (The two actors’ distinct sets of musical skills, Ruhl notes in the program, were part of what motivated the unusual double casting.)
Hecht draws upon her characteristic wit and charm, flexing her comedic chops as she addresses the audience directly at the Signature’s intimate Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. She holds this room, and works with great sensitivity with her partners. Pais gives Max a gentle softness that only slightly fades. With Edelman—whose edgier Max takes us further along his illness journey—Hecht has more to push back against, to strong effect. In Kate Whoriskey’s staging, Marsha Ginsberg’s white set is all simple planes to allow swift set changes and provide surfaces for an array of projections by S Katy Tucker, ranging from star fields to x-rays to fragments of poetic text.
Having seen both versions, I’m not convinced that the alternating casting adds much, if anything, to this production of Ruhl’s show. But the story of a young person dying will always have the power to move. This epistolary play sends the message that a life cut short can call us to embrace our own lives and—as Max tells Sarah in a dream—to feel them swaying.
Letters from Max. Signature Theatre Company (Off Broadway). By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. With Jessica Hecht, Ben Edelman, Zane Pais. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.
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Letters from Max, a ritual | Photograph: Joan Marcus